Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has an estimated net worth in excess of $118 billion, which makes him “the richest man alive,” according to CNN. He owns “a 5.3 acre property in Medina, Washington, another home in Beverly Hills, California, a 30,000-acre ranch in Texas, and apartments in New York.”
But that is not all.
According to the Washingtonian, the richest man alive has been renovating a 27,000-square-foot Washington, D.C. mansion he purchased in 2016 for $23 million in cash. This renovation project, the Washingtonian reports, “includes 25 bathrooms, 11 bedrooms, five living rooms/lounges, five staircases, three kitchens, two libraries/studies, two workout rooms, two elevators–and a huge ballroom.”
“Our estimations show,” write economists Thomas Picketty and Lucas Chancel in their 2015 study “Carbon and Inequality: from Kyoto to Paris,” that the “top 1% richest Americans, Luxemburgers, Singaporeans, and Saudi Arabians are the highest individual emitters in the world, with annual per capital emissions above 200tCO2e.” The top one percent’s per capital emissions, Picketty and Chancel further find, is “about 50 times world average,” and signifies the level of emission inequality between the extremely wealthy and all other humans.
It is probably safe to say that Jeff Bezos is one of the highest individual carbon emitters on Earth. Moreover, given his 16% stake in Amazon–a high emitting corporation that has, over the last two years, “aggressively courted the fossil fuels industry, landing deals and partnerships with companies like BP, Shell, and Halliburton”–we can assume Bezos’ per capital emissions are greater than 50 times the world average.
This “emissions inequality” between Bezos and the rest of us is truly a reflection, if not a measure, of the wealth gap between the 1% and 99%. As such, it is necessarily inextricable from both national and global economic inequalities.
Even more, however, this emissions inequality is also inextricable from Amazon’s wage policies and labor practices.
Under Bezos’ watch, for instance, Amazon resisted–for years–raising employees’ hourly wages, even while Amazon was well on its way to becoming a trillion dollar company. As a consequence of this wage suppression, many Amazon employees had to rely on food stamps and other public assistance in order to make ends meet (this is why New York Representative Ocasio-Cortez recently decried Amazon’s “starvation wages”). Though it is true that, after much public pressure, the company in November 2018 finally raised hourly wages to $15 an hour, this modest increase in pay–as Politifact writer Bill McCarthy notes–probably won’t “change things for all employees.” Indeed, some continue to be, and will likely remain eligible for, as well as reliant on, government assistance.
Amazon has also aggressively resisted its workers’ efforts to form unions. For example, when corporate executives got wind that workers at Whole Foods–which Amazon owns–was starting to organize, the company sent to Whole Foods’ Team Leaders a “45-minute union-busting training video” that the company produced for just such occasions (this video was leaked to the press).
Meanwhile, Amazon has paid its CEOs handsomely. This past April, The Seattle Times reported that the company’s CEO pay ratio “was 1-to-58 in 2018.” In 2017, the ratio was 1-to-59. Andy Jassy and Jeff Wilke–the CEOs of “Amazon’s two biggest business units”–each received “total compensation of over $19.7 million.” Amazon’s senior vice president Jeff Blackburn “received $10.4 million,” and “chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky received $6.9 million.” The pay ratio for Wilke, “whose organization includes the warehouses and logistics operations where Amazon’s lowest-paid employees work,” is approximately “1-to-684.”
Because wage suppression and union-busting help to ensure that “an enormous and ever-increasing share of income growth goes to corporate profits and executive pay,” Amazon’s wage policies and labor practices have guaranteed that much of the wealth its workers produce goes to the company’s profits and to its CEOs’ generous salaries and bonuses. In this way, the company’s policies and practices help to produce national and global economic inequality.
Let’s not stop there, however.
This transfer of income growth puts into the hands of Bezos and the other high-paid executives more money with which to sustain and expand Amazon’s high carbon-emitting business processes and infrastructure, more money to invest in the company’s fossil fuel projects, more money with which to purchase their personal mansions, New York apartments and private jets – more money, in fact, with which to burn up the earth.
In other words, the power Amazon exerts to hold down its employees’ wages helps to produce not only emissions inequality between the 1% and the rest of us, but also the individual emission privileges and advantages Bezos himself enjoys (and that Amazon’s other CEOs likely enjoy). That $15 an hour helps to make Bezos’ per capital emissions 50 or more times the average.
No doubt all of this is true as well for other companies and CEOs (Walmart immediately comes to mind).
Let’s now frame this problem of emissions inequality from the bottom-up: the hardships that Amazon’s employees suffer on a day-to-day basis–scraping together money for rent, food, childcare, electricity bills, water bills; getting adequate health care for themselves and their children; sending their kids to underfunded and segregated schools; and, working under conditions that are often harsh, stressful and even dangerous–are the conditions upon which Bezos and Amazon’s other executives depend, at least in part, in order to live lifestyles through which they emit more greenhouse gases than most people on Earth will emit in their lifetimes.
These same conditions–produced in part by Amazon’s labor practices–ultimately make Amazon’s workers, and their workers’ families and communities, increasingly more vulnerable to our unfolding climate crisis.
Critics of House Resolution 109 (H. RES. 109)—the “Green New Deal” (GND) introduced in Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)—have condemned this nonbinding resolution for its inclusion of aspirations which, in their view, have nothing to do with climate change. In particular, what they find irrelevant are the aspirations that address social and economic inequalities, such as providing “high quality health care” and “affordable, safe and adequate housing” for all.
As objectionable as they find these goals, many critics are more disturbed by the aspirations that address the harms suffered specifically by communities of color as a result of historic and present day systemic discrimination. Though they are willing to acknowledge that communities of color are more vulnerable than whites to the impacts of climate change, Resolution critics—including those who are for the passage of some green new deal (just not this one)—are unwilling to accept that these communities’ past and present experiences of discrimination might have something to do with our climate crisis. Consequently, they reject any attempt to redress these harms through climate change legislation, and suggest that mention of these in H. RES. 109 is good enough reason to reject altogether the resolution.
In response, supporters of H. RES. 109 and of more radical GNDs have noted that the communities most vulnerable to and affected by climate change are the least responsible for creating the climate crisis. Moreover, these same communities (supporters argue) are disproportionately subjected to environmental harms produced by fossil fuel and other toxic industries due to politicians’ discriminatory and industry-friendly industrial zoning decisions, such as those that have produced Louisiana’s infamous–and deadly–Cancer Alley.
While true, these answers neither directly answer critics’ implicit question (e.g., “what does ‘adequate and affordable housing’ have to do with climate change?”) nor do they directly take on critics’ dismissal of climate change as an issue of systemic discrimination.
Because the Resolution’s concern with discrimination is being used to delegitimize the adoption of a just GND, it is incumbent upon advocates to address head-on critics’ concerns. This means actually talking about climate change itself—and extreme weather—not only as created through energy production and use that take place within systems of subordination; but also as an effect of energy systems and industries that reproduce and entrench inequalities.
So, suppose we framed the issue this way:
H. RES. 109 seeks to redress the harms suffered by communities that have been historically denied equal access to jobs, technologies, housing, education, consumer goods, services and energy which have been instrumental in the production and emission of the greenhouse gases (ghg) that are radically altering our climate.
In other words, for most of the 20th century, these communities could not participate equally with the white majority in direct and indirect fossil fuel consumption.
They could not directly and indirectly emit or produce ghgs at the same level as whites, whether through work, consumption of goods and services, use of fossil-fuel intensive technologies, or leisure activities.
Because of systemic discrimination, these communities were excluded from decision-making regarding the creation of energy policy, technologies, and industries, as well as the siting of energy-intensive and petro industries.
They were excluded from decision-making bodies at the local, state, and federal level—not to mention from industry board rooms–and thus had no say in how energy would be developed, operated, located, and provided.
They were excluded, by and large, from jobs in energy-intensive as well as in fossil fuel industries.
Until the fairly recent past, they could not enjoy equally the benefits of energy use, consumption and emission in public spaces. Indeed, they could not enjoy equally the benefits of public and private spaces built as energy intensive spaces and created by energy intensive technological processes.
And because of systemic discrimination, these communities could not, and did not, contribute to climate change to the degree that they likely would have done had they been treated as equal under the law.
Communities of color are “disproportionately impacted” by climate change is the consequence of decades of oppressive practices, which makes that disproportionate impact an additional experience of injustice.
Viewed thusly, we could say that Jim Crow, for example, was a system of racial subordination characterized by the exclusion of African Americans from equal participation in the direct and indirect fossil fuel production and consumption that powered the Second Industrial Revolution and the Golden Age of Capitalism (or most of the Golden Age of Capitalism, which began after WWII and ended with the ‘73-‘75 recession). African Americans were excluded from decision-making concerning fossil fuel production and consumption—which is to say, really, that Jim Crow, and segregationist policies and practices throughout the rest of the country, maximized the white majority’s fossil fuel production, consumption and emission. They ensured that the energy industry, systems, and technologies would work for the benefit of whites—and particularly for the benefit of the white middle and upper classes.
We could say that our energy system, our energy industries, our energy technologies, and our energy-intensive infrastructures were built in ways that served and secured white supremacy.
Consequently, the everyday lived experiences by communities of color, of wage and employment discrimination, segregation, separate and unequal schools, and other systemic harms, were inextricable from the ghg production, emission and consumption by which our society was powered and which was beginning to create our climate crisis.
Climate change, in fact, is in part ecological blowback from direct and indirect fossil fuel extraction, production, consumption and emissions as these took place within systems of subordination, both here and abroad. Our extreme weather is blowback from energy systems that were designed and operated in ways that entrenched inequalities (that communities of color are “disproportionately impacted” by climate change is the consequence of decades of oppressive practices, which makes that disproportionate impact an additional experience of injustice).
Times have changed, of course. Communities that have been historically discriminated against now have greater access to, and enjoy greater participation in, our fossil fuel driven economy.
We consume more. We waste more. We emit more.
But we do this, still, in a place where systemic discrimination persists.
House Resolution 109 proposes this: that we create a society where our political, economic, social and energy systems are rooted in justice—where the energy by which this new society is powered is not mobilized, created and designed to reify exclusion or privilege. It rejects the unspoken presumption that we should map onto existing social and economic relations a green energy infrastructure, and thus leave inequalities firmly in place.
In fact, the Resolution proposes that we rethink energy, and our use of it, from the bottom-up.
Though an incomplete and imperfect vision that needs to be more radical, not less, the Resolution at least proceeds from the understanding that dismantling the energy system we have must entail dismantling the hierarchies of power that sustain it and that it reproduces. It is of necessity a healing, reparative project, one that recognizes the harms suffered in the Cancer Alleys throughout our nation by saying “yes” to health care, living wages, adequate housing, good schools, clean air, safe drinking water, good jobs, a just energy infrastructure, and freedom from systemic discrimination. It says yes, of course.
Detractors of the House Resolution and of more leftist GNDs won’t like this analysis at all.
But it does answer their question.
This piece was originally published in Common Dreams, and the ideas expressed I first broadcast in my Patreon podcast, The Wretched of Mother Earth. You can support this show by becoming a patron (for as little as $3 a month)!
“Over the past three decades,” reported Steve Reilly in a June 2016 USA Today article, Donald Trump “has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits.” Many of these lawsuits, Reilly notes, “involve ordinary Americans…who say Trump or his companies have refused to pay them.” Dishwashers, plumbers, bartenders, painters, waiters, real estate brokers, lawyers–this broad swath of workers Trump routinely relied on to build his wealth, and yet he didn’t see fit (it is alleged) to compensate them for the work that they had done. Trump, it seems, thought he was entitled to their unpaid labor.
But that’s not all.
“Trump’s companies,” Reilly continues, “have also been cited for 24 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act since 2005 for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage.”
While, admittedly, all of this is old news, Donald Trump’s anti-labor practices are actually instructive regarding the current #TrumpShutDown. Like his refusal to pay his former employees, for example, Trump’s shutdown is his willingness to sacrifice working women and men for his own personal gain. The shutdown also expresses his sense of entitlement–to which the lawsuits attest–to the unpaid labor of others, as well as his disregard for the fact that the workers upon whom he relies need to pay their rent, their gas and electric bills, their water bills, their student loan debts–even their transportation to the local food bank. And like his treatment of his former employees, Trump’s shutdown reveals an inability on his part to “relate” to any workers struggling to make ends meet.
It is fair to say, then, that Trump’s anti-labor practices are guiding principles of his partial shutdown of the federal government.
Reilly concludes that the lawsuits filed against Donald Trump “in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.”
What was it, precisely, that Trump recently boasted to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer about the federal government shutdown? Oh, yes: it could go on for “months or even years.”
Just like his former employees’ lawsuits.
Steeped in Trump’s anti-labor practices, this shutdown must be seen for what it is: a war on working people, executed from the Oval Office. Indeed, it is one of many acts of class war that include the attempted evisceration of ObamaCare, environmental deregulation that specifically injures poor and working class frontline communities, Trump tax cuts for the rich, and a host of other odious policies intended to discipline and control everyday people.
In this regard, the #TrumpShutDown is in truth a #OnePercentShutDown. Though Trump the billionaire is of course directly responsible for it, he is not the only billionaire (and the Trump entities are not the only corporations) who believes he should suffer no consequences, ever, for how he treats workers or for his expropriation of their wealth. He is not the only billionaire who claims as his right and privilege the benefits of your unpaid work. He is not the only one-percenter aided and abetted by members of Congress as well as state politicians, at the expense of us all.
This shutdown, then, is a wake-up call for all working women and men–whether organized or unorganized, government or private sector. It is a wake-up call that tells us not only that we must shut down this anti-worker government shutdown; but also that we must assert our power as workers everywhere–in the workplace, in the courts, and on the streets–because it is the only way we can win the class war of which the #TrumpShutDown is so much a part.
Though Donald Trump’s Black Friday release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (FNCA) completely backfired–the media relentlessly covered the report, and with devastating detail–Trump nevertheless managed to escape being held to account for what is (arguably) the Assessment’s most damning observation:
“Current trends in annual greenhouse gas emissions, globally, are consistent with RCP8.5.”
What does this mean?
RCPs, or “Representative Concentration Pathways,” are “possible scenarios” scientists use to “evaluate the implications of different climate outcomes and associated impacts throughout the 21st century,” as the FNCA notes. RCP8.5 is the highest scenario, meaning that it “represents a future where annual greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly throughout the 21st century before leveling off by 2100.”
In other words, RCP8.5 is the worst possible scenario. It describes a world in which the global annual temperature will be, by the end of this century, 9°F higher (or more) than it is today.
We cannot survive such a world.
Trump was not held to account for the FNCA’s claim–or, rather, for what the claim suggests about his pro-fossil fuel environmental policies–because it was widely overlooked in news reports and FNCA “take-aways.” Consequently, when the White House bemoaned the fact that the report was “largely based on the most extreme scenario,” the media, the administration’s critics, and even scientists typically offered the retort that the Assessment addresses other scenarios; that it was properly vetted; and, that RCP8.5 was just one possible future we are facing.
In other words, not one mention of the fact that current trends are consistent with the worst case scenario, trends to which we are contributing significantly.
According to research recently published by the Global Carbon Project, the world “is on pace to release a record 37.1 gigatons of planet-warming emissions in 2018, led in large part by China, the United States and India.” Moreover, our nation’s emissions “are expected to rise 2.5 percent this year.”
The environmental policies of the Trump administration–as well as those championed by many state governments–are nothing less than RCP8.5 in the making. In fact, given that these policies have been formulated in the context of an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning climate change, they are an intentional production of accelerating species extinction, extreme weather, climate migration, climate-related social and economic inequalities, water and food scarcity, sea level rise, ecosystem collapse, climate change related illnesses, disease, and death, ocean dead zones, and polluted air.
They are policies at war with all life on earth.
We could say, then, that RCP8.5 is here and now.
And why not? After all, that “extreme scenario” the White House complained about is not something that will appear suddenly, out of thin air, in the year 2100. No, it will unfold, inexorably, through one deregulation after another, one fossil fuel tax break and subsidy after another, one pro-coal conference and promotion after another, until the water inundates our coastal cities, the pollinators die off, the aquifers dry up, and our food supply runs out.
Of course, even as we are in the process of creating a RCP8.5 world, that world is not inevitable. It is not our fate because we can change course.
But for that to be true, not only must we resist and organize; we must also do both like its 2099.
This article was originally published in Common Dreams.
As panic starts to set in about what little time we have to avert catastrophic climate change, elites have begun in earnest to drum up support for geoengineering fixes – including the fix of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.
The basic idea behind this relatively cheap, “cost effective” technique is that we could replicate the cooling effect of volcanic disruptions. Like the sulfur emitted by volcanoes, the aerosols would reflect sunlight back into space, and thus briefly spare us from the disastrous effects of rising temperatures caused by our fossil fuel emissions. This “last resort,” advocates say, could ultimately “save the planet” and thus “save humanity” while we figure out how to effectively and cheaply remove carbon from the atmosphere.
One could take great comfort in this aspiration to “save humanity.” After all, it seems we will not, in the time required, rise to the occasion of shutting down petrocapitalists.
However, advocates’ unspoken presumption that all humans would (of course!) want to pursue this “last resort” indicates that a more cynical aspiration is at work, for it is precisely the kind of presumption one makes when one is steeped in the colonial logic that produced our climate crisis.
Indeed, we should pay attention to how freely the champions of sulfur injections (and other equally radical geoengineering fixes) speak the language of the Universal Subject, that creature of colonialism whose benevolent claims about what was best for “humanity” – often framed in the discourse of economic as well as scientific objectivity and rationality – masked His exercise of brute power over non-western people and over Earth herself.
He is speaking to us again now, promising to save “us all” while intending primarily to safeguard western civilization, because western civilization is what He really means when He speaks about “humanity.”
In fact, He believes that saving western civilization is the same as saving Earth, and that Earth is not, in and of itself, worth saving if we are forced to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
That’s the implication, anyway, of His insisting that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels up to the point where “we” will eventually have to turn to the last resort for “our” survival.
It goes without saying that Others will need to be sacrificed to this greater good.
Indeed, it almost always goes without saying.
The men and women who are trying to sell us the solution of sulfur injections tend to be strangely silent on the fact that these injections would “disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people,” as Alan Robock and other scientists reported in a 2008 paper published the Journal of Geophysical Research (the authors of a more recent study published in Nature Geoscience indicate that while sulfur injections would likely cool the earth, they would also reduce global rainfall).
The effort to resolve our climate crisis in this manner is itself an extension of colonial logic. After all, as Heather Davis and Zoe Todd explain, “colonialism, especially settler colonialism – which in the Americas simultaneously employed the twinned processes of dispossession and chattel slavery – was always about changing the land, transforming the earth itself, including the creatures, the plants, the soil composition and the atmosphere. It was about moving and unearthing rocks and minerals. All of these acts were intimately tied to the project of erasure that is the imperative of settler colonialism.” If history is any indication, the last resort might very well be western civilization’s final act of colonial violence, exclusion and erasure – first, of the peoples and sentient beings it has always exploited and disregarded; then – and no doubt unintentionally – of western civilization itself.
Earth will survive this madness. It will rend and swallow and churn into fossils bridges and buildings and books and bunkers. It will heal and balance and produce new life forms. Hardly a trace of western civilization will remain, and what will remain, won’t matter at all.
To save ourselves, we cannot resort to technologies that are steeped in the logic of coloniality. Instead, decolonization – along with attendant Earth-healing technologies – must be both our first and last resort. We must be determined to live for one another, not at one another’s expense. We must let go of “humanity” altogether, and refuse to accept as well as live by the premise that western civilization must survive at all costs.
 See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014): p. 270.
This piece was originally published on 11/9/18 in Counterpunch.
Check out my Patreon podcast, The Wretched of Mother Earth, where I decolonize climate change.
“What arrived in the Americas in the late fifteenth century was not only an economic system of capital and labor for the production of commodities …From the structural location of an indigenous woman in the Americas, what arrived was a more complex world system…A European /capitalist /military /Christian /patriarchal /white/ heterosexual/male arrived in the Americas and established simultaneously in time and space several entangled global hierarchies.”
– Ramón Grosfoguel
Lately I’ve been struck by a picture of Melinda Tillies, a Louisiana homeowner recently featured in an article by Julie Dermansky in DeSmogBlog.* Tillies is standing in front of her house. In the background (not more than “25 feet away”) is a crane, its arm lifted, ready to plunge into the earth.
Tillies looks into the camera. She appears at once angry, fed-up, resigned, and defiant.
From Dermansky we learn that Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC (BBP), a joint venture between Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Phillips 66, is building a pipeline that “will serve as the last leg of a transportation network to move oil fracked in North Dakota (and potentially Canadian tar sands) via the Dakota Access pipeline to Louisiana’s coast for export.”
The crane behind Tillies is digging a trench for that pipeline, and it is BBP’s invasion of Tillies’ neighborhood, as well as the structural damage the company is doing to Tillies’ home, that explains the pained expression we see on her face.
Though one could view a moment like this – the way many often do – as yet another instance in which “capitalism” trumps the urgent need to address climate change, UC Berkeley Professor Ramón Grosfoguel’s critique should give us pause (in his work, Grosfoguel takes issue with a Eurocentric world system perspective that treats social relations as merely “additive elements” to the “capitalist world-system”). It should make us look a bit more deeply at what, exactly, has “arrived” in Tillies’ community and practically on her front porch.
When we do this, a “more complex world system” comes into focus, one that we can describe using a frame similar to the one Grosfoguel employs to frame European colonization of the Americas. That is, we can say that what have arrived in Tillies’ community are primarily “capitalist / [law enforcement] / Christian / patriarchal / white / heterosexual / male[s].” And they are all quite easy to identify.
In particular, they are the officers, shareholders, workforce and contractors of ETP and Phillips 66; the Louisiana state representatives who have facilitated BBP construction; the executives and employees of the banks that extended credit for BBP; the faculty and Advisory Council members of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies; Louisiana’s law enforcement apparatus; members of the U.S. Congress who serve fossil fuel interests; and, of course, the President himself, with his “DRILL BABY DRILL” energy policy.
These men (as well as the women and people of color who accompany them) have descended upon communities all along the pipeline’s path, carrying with them the entangled “hierarchies of power” in which they are, to varying degrees, collectively invested.
Tracking Grosfoguel’s analysis, these hierarchies (listed separately for convenience) include:
A class hierarchy that privileges the wealthy.
BBP will add significantly to the coffers of an already wealthy elite while it will disproportionately burden Louisiana’s poor and working class people and their communities. Unlike the latter, the more affluent are not subject to the kind of spatial invasion Tillies’ suffers – which means they don’t have to live in fear of emissions leaks close to their homes, eminent domain, property damage, and other harms to which BBP feels entirely at ease subjecting poor and working class people.
A racial hierarchy that privileges whites.
It should come as no surprise that the pipeline not only disproportionately burdens poor and working class people, but also Louisiana’s communities of color. If completed, it “will carve up 11 parishes in Louisiana and cross 700 bodies of water, including Bayou LaFourche, a critical reservoir that supplies the United Houma Nation and 300,000 residents with drinking water.” Moreover, the pipeline passes “near the historic and predominately black community of St. James,” which is already exposed to myriad environmental harms perpetrated by various toxic industries deliberately sited in this area (the BBP was itself able to secure from the state a coastal use permit without having to consider the environmental impact of the pipeline on St. James parish).
A gender hierarchy that privileges males.
Not only are ETP and Philips 66 dominated by white men, but so also are the other institutions that are backing the pipeline. For example, of Louisiana’s elected officials, 67% are white men, who make up only 29% of Louisiana’s population (in contrast, women of color, who make up 21% of the population, constitute only 5% of Louisiana’s elected officials). Many of these elected officials are recipients of fossil fuel industry largess.
A “media /informational hierarchy” where the primarily white male power structure has control over the means of “media production and information technology” to make its point of view “enter media networks,” which then privilege that point of view.
The mainstream media have generally failed to cover pipeline resistance, the environmental hazards of fossil fuel production, environmental racism, and climate change. This is no less true of mainstream media in Louisiana, the effect of which is to shield fossil fuel interests, and their apologists, from scrutiny and critique.
Though Tillies’ fight with BBP to get compensation for the damage done to her home did receive local media attention, the media presented that fight as primarily an individual struggle disconnected from the wider harms (mentioned only briefly) caused by pipeline construction in Louisiana – including climate change.
A system of political-law enforcement-private security organizations controlled by white men.
The primarily white male Louisiana House of Representatives this past spring introduced and then passed legislation that criminalizes the activities of groups that protest the extraction, transport, and burning of oil and gas. This legislation they adopted specifically to quash BBP resistance. Three anti-BBP activists have just been chargedunder this law. While protesting in Louisiana’s public waterways, they were “abducted” by ETP’s private security, which then turned the activists over to police.
Lest the gravity of this isn’t clear: the company’s private security abducted citizens who were lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights in a public space. Rather than questioning the abduction, the police charged the activists with violating Louisiana’s new anti-First Amendment rights law.
This abduction should remind us of the fact that ETP used TigerSwan, a private security firm, to oversee protection of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Employing “military-style counterterrorism tactics”against the Water Protectors, TigerSwan infiltrated the Water Protectors’ camps, conducted aerial surveillance, and used social media to execute a “counterinformation campaign” against those protesting the pipeline – all with the blessing of the state.
Established “simultaneously in time and space” throughout the pipeline project, these and other entangled global hierarchies (e.g., sexual, ecological, spiritual, pedagogical) are what everyone in the pipeline’s path – from Louisiana to North Dakota – is up against. They are what all of us are up against in our fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the fact of which a focus solely or primarily on capitalism does not fully capture because, as Grosfoguel makes clear, capitalism is “only one…constellation of power” entangled “with other power relations.” Indeed, it does not fully capture how critical are these pipelines to these other hierarchies of power, or just how much the reification of these hierarchies are part of what produced climate change.
What we need, then, is “a new language” (again, Grosfoguel) to account for what we see from Tillies’ front yard, a language that does not reduce the struggle before us to a solely anti-capitalist struggle. Of course, with this new language must come new models and methods of resistance. These must be able to recognize, name, and then dismantle, the more complex world system that the pipelines, and ultimately climate change itself, both embody and express.
*Photograph is copyrighted by, and reprinted with permission from, Julie Dermansky.
This article was originally published in Counterpunch.
“By passing a resolution grounded in the just transition framework, the DNC can cynically present itself as speaking for all workers even as it embraces the companies responsible for the conditions that have harmed a broad swath of working people unattached to the fossil fuel industry. At the same time, it can ignore the urgency of transition for a whole range of workers who are in need of a just and accelerated response to climate change.”
Read my newest article now at Common Dreams.
Every “extreme weather event” that occurs without a powerful, on-the-ground climate activist response is a lost opportunity. In particular, it is a failure to seize the event as a moment to drive home the insanity of our representatives’ inadequate response (or lack thereof) to climate change.
In “Hurricane Mobilizations and ‘the Fierce Urgency’ of Climate Change,” I argued that we should “answer – with orchestrated national mobilizations unsurpassed in growth, force and intensity – the call of every record-breaking hurricane that forms in the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean.”
We should do no less for other extreme weather events, like the recent scorching heat wave that brought record-setting temperatures across the globe, from Siberia to Los Angeles, and that killed 70 people in Quebec alone.
These extreme weather events are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we are in a state of crisis. We are gradually approaching, and will likely exceed, a 1.5°C increase in global temperatures. In fact, we will likely exceed the 2°C warming limit championed in the Paris Accord. And given the Trump Administration’s commitment to the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels, we will likely pass crucial tipping points that will result in runaway climate change.
Truly, these extreme weather events are calls to radical action.
Why, then, aren’t we overwhelming “our cities, our state capitols, our federal agencies, our Congress, our White House, our corporations, our highways, our railroad tracks, our refineries with increasing waves of marches, canvassing, teach-ins, sit-ins, blockades, strikes, die-ins, occupations” – every single time a record-setting event occurs?
Why just the single march, the grand event, disconnected from the now-regular occasion of a one-hundred year flood, a triple-hurricane, a ravaging wildfire, a 117° day in Los Angeles – all of which, by the way, the press deliriously covers (unlike the grand event)?
Why aren’t we treating the radical nihilism of our climate denying representatives and economic elites with the resistance it deserves?
What tipping point are we waiting for?
(This article originally appeared in Counterpunch).
Though a federal judge has just thrown out the climate change lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco against the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, the fight is not yet over. As John Coté of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office stated after the court’s ruling, “our belief remains that these companies are liable for the harm they’ve caused.” Though the decision was “not the ruling we wanted,” Coté said, “this doesn’t mean the case is over.”
This pause in the legal proceedings presents a great opportunity to examine an important yet widely overlooked climate justice claim that the City of Oakland included in its lawsuit and that deserves more attention. It reads:
“Many of the Oakland residents who are likely to be most affected by climate change are low-income and/or people of color. As the U.S. government has pointed out, people of color, low-income groups, and certain immigrant groups are (e.g., because of poverty, chronic health conditions, and social isolation) potentially more ‘vulnerable’ to climate change impacts, including heat waves, flooding, and degraded air quality. This is true in Oakland, where ‘socially vulnerable’ individuals such as African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color tend to live at lower elevations most affected by sea level rise and higher storm surges. These populations also face challenges due to the legacies of slavery, such as redlining, predatory mortgage and other lending, systemic racism and discrimination in securing insurance and other assets that would protect them from the consequences of global warming and the ensuing climate change. More affluent residents live farther from the Bay and at higher elevations. For example, of the City of Oakland population that lives on land within three vertical feet of the current local high tide line, more than 70% have been categorized as having high ‘social vulnerability.’ This makes it all the more imperative for the People to act now to prevent harm, as those most vulnerable have the fewest resources to protect themselves.”
This claim, a version of which appears in San Francisco’s lawsuit, is crucial for a number of reasons. First, it indicates the City of Oakland recognizes that climate change impacts will reflect and even reinforce fundamental inequalities in Oakland. Second, it shows that the City is at least willing to say, as it has done in other contexts, that it is committed to addressing the needs of its most vulnerable residents in the face of catastrophic sea level rise. Finally, it suggests that the City considers fossil fuel companies’ distortions, cover-ups, and outright lies about the risks of fossil fuel use, acts that will further harm “socially vulnerable” communities, at least inasmuch as the deceptions will exacerbate existing inequalities. With this claim, then, the City of Oakland has litigated climate change as inextricable from social justice concerns.
As laudable as it is, however, the claim is nevertheless deeply unsettling. While the City of Oakland rightly underscores the social and climate vulnerability of its low income “and/or” residents of color, as well as the “legacies of slavery,” it subtly sets itself apart from the vulnerabilities and legacies of which it speaks. This then frees the City to claim – in spite of developments in Oakland that suggest otherwise, and in which the City is implicated – that the benefits of sea walls and other “protective infrastructure” will actually accrue to low income and/or communities of color. At the same time, it also enables the City to use its shared status as climate victim to frame implicitly the construction of protective infrastructure as climate justice.
To be sure, given the trajectory of climate change, Oakland will suffer “serious climate change injuries that will require billions in expenditures to abate the global warming nuisance,” as the City rightly claims in its lawsuit. It is especially on track for “catastrophic” flooding, storm surges, and coastal erosion, for “global warming has caused and continues to cause accelerated sea level rise in San Francisco Bay and the adjacent ocean.” Thus, by the year 2050, Oakland can expect to experience a 100-year flood “on average once every 2.3 years.” By the year 2100, “Oakland is projected to experience up to 66 inches of sea level rise.” If these predictions prove correct, Oakland will surely need those sea walls, and to the degree that the fossil fuel companies are responsible for climate change and the ensuing nuisance of rising seas (they are), they should certainly have to cough up the “abatement fund remedy” Oakland (and other cities) hopes to collect.
Yet, we need to ask ourselves whether and to what degree Oakland’s “socially vulnerable communities” will actually benefit from sea walls and other protective infrastructure. After all, right now, these communities are experiencing relentless gentrification and displacement, processes due in part to many of the urban development policies and practices forged by city officials, the business community, and wealthy residents, as well as by the state of California. In other words, the City is increasingly becoming a playground for the affluent who can afford to purchase (and who are driving up the price of) homes in Oakland or to pay the City’s astronomical rents (between 2012 and 2017, Oakland rents have increased by as much as 51.1 percent and are, consequently, among the highest in the nation).
In its Urban Displacement Project study, the University of California (Berkeley) reported that in the year 2015, “more than half” of the Bay area’s low-income households lived in “neighborhoods at risk of,” or were “already experiencing displacement and gentrification pressures.” Moreover, between 2013 and 2015, the rate of gentrification and displacement “accelerated most quickly in Oakland’s neighborhoods.” While gentrification and displacement in Oakland have been in process for decades, they have accelerated since the turn of the century and especially during the recent Great Recession. Since 2000, for example, the City “lost 30 percent of its black population,” and between the years 2010 and 2014, “28 percent of those leaving Oakland made less” than $30,000 a year. These processes have not let up. Many of the people displaced moved further inland to less affluent areas, where in the future they will face not rising seas, but instead punishing waves of heat.
It is entirely conceivable, then, that by the time the seas rise to a catastrophic level, a significant number of Oakland’s socially vulnerable residents will be long gone. (While “Oakland has already begun to feel injury from sea level rise,” the City claims, “its most severe injuries by far are the injuries that will occur in the future if prompt action is not taken to protect Oakland and its residents”). Consequently, the more affluent (primarily white) who will have taken their place will likely be the main beneficiaries of the City’s sea walls and other protective infrastructure. This is not to argue, of course, that the City should not protect the affluent; instead, it is simply to point out that the realities of gentrification and displacement trouble the City’s climate justice claim.
The relentless transformation of Oakland into a playground for the affluent reminds us that the City has always played a role in creating the social, economic and political conditions that have rendered its low income and/or communities of color vulnerable, and because the City has played a role, it has had a hand in creating these communities’ climate vulnerabilities.
For example, the “low-lying” West Oakland community is “historically black” not only because African Americans migrated there in search of jobs during the World War II era; but also because, in the past, white city officials, businesses, and residents adopted and implemented racist policies and practices designed to exclude African Americans from the rest of the city. What this means, of course, is that black people do not “tend to live” in this flood zone area (by using the phrase “tend to live” in its lawsuit, the City suggests that segregation, of all things, is a matter of happenstance). Instead, for decades white city officials and residents actively prevented black people from living in other parts of the city – especially the flood-safe, higher-elevation Oakland hills. The fact that “more affluent residents” live in the hills is itself a consequence of, and testament to, decades of racist and anti-poor urban planning. The City’s obfuscation of this history should give us pause and compel us to look more critically at the climate justice it purports to pursue.
Ironically, the City’s past unjust policies and practices, coupled with those of the federal government, arguably made low income and/or communities of color less culpable regarding greenhouse gas emissions. After all, for decades they limited vulnerable communities’ mobility and labor opportunities. For example, federal, state, and local real estate and lending practices, such as redlining, high interest lending, and the outright refusal by banks to offer loans, operated to exclude people of color in great measure from the Bay area suburbs while they simultaneously facilitated white relocation. Consequently, for many years socially vulnerable communities were not a significant a part of the commuting public that burned large quantities of fossil fuels to get to work, to air condition their homes, to recreate, and to shop.
As whites took advantage of Federal Housing Administration and other loans to move to the suburbs, the City sought to recoup the consequent loss of revenue by, among other things, encouraging and facilitating the further expansion of industrial development in West Oakland. This development not only increased the burning and transportation of fossil fuels in the Bay area; it also increased the exposure of the primarily black and poor residents who resided in West Oakland to environmental harms.
Even now, the City continues to adopt and advance development plans in West Oakland that will burden residents even more with fossil fuel exposure, as the environmental law firm Earthjustice claims in a recent lawsuit it filed against the City and the Port of Oakland. According to Earthjustice, both entities have been “forcing through freight expansion projects that disproportionately subject the communities of color that surround both the Port” and Oakland Army Base properties “to air pollution and other serious health threats on the basis of their race.” Not only have the City and the Port failed “to ensure adequate health and safety protections,” Earthjustice claims; they have also expanded “maritime, shipping, and transport activities” in ways that expose residents “to severe air pollution emissions without adequate mitigation.” (Of all communities in Oakland, Earthjustice notes, “West Oakland has one of the lowest life expectancies” – a fact partially attributable to its toxic environment).
None of these facts should keep us from appreciating the City’s inclusion of a climate justice claim in its lawsuit, and we should assume that it likely did so both in good faith and with the intention to address honorably our evolving climate crisis. Indeed, many of Oakland’s city officials are deeply concerned about climate change as well as equity and social justice, as the City’s Energy and Climate Action Plan shows. Adopted by the City Council in 2012, this ten year plan maps out actions the City will take to “achieve a 36% reduction” in greenhouse gas emissions. In recognition of the fact that the risks of severe climate impacts “are magnified for economically disadvantaged communities,” the plan also details actions the City will take to “increase community resilience” and “minimize vulnerabilities.”
Additionally, in 2015 the City Council unanimously approved its “Housing Action Plan and Policy Framework,” which addresses the affordable housing crisis and displacement of long-time residents. The Framework “establishes more than a dozen strategies to prevent tenant displacement.” It commits Oakland to “weigh in with the U.S. Congress and the Administration to supplement dwindling federal investments in affordable housing.” Finally, it charges Oakland to address “bad faith evictions” as well as evictions “of long-term residents”; to develop “a standard city tenant relocation policy”; and, to “fund city program operations.”
Yet, it matters that the City obfuscates in its lawsuit (and even, I would add, in its climate and housing plans) the role it has played in creating its residents’ vulnerabilities. It matters because it tells us that the climate justice to which Oakland is committed might itself be an obfuscation. That is, it indicates that the City’s notions of climate justice might not be justice at all since the City does not reckon with its own historic role in producing the “legacies of slavery” and, consequently, climate vulnerabilities. “Framing structural inequalities only in terms of susceptibility to harms,” writes feminist scholar Chris Cuomo, “focuses attention on the supposed weaknesses or limitations of those who are in harm’s way, but says little about whether injustices or other harms have put them in such precarious positions.”
Hence, the future that the City ultimately imagines in its lawsuit, and even in its climate plans, is one marked by the persistence of social vulnerability. That is, the City looks at the year 2100 and sees its sea walls protecting communities still suffering fundamental social and economic inequalities, rather than protecting communities no longer burdened by the legacies of slavery. While one could argue that this merely reflects Oakland’s realistic recognition of just how entrenched are social and economic injustices, one could also say that it constitutes a surrender of sorts, a surrender that casts our ability to survive catastrophic climate change as more realistic than our ability to create a just Oakland. At any rate, the effect of Oakland’s limited imagination is that it effectively reduces climate justice to building walls, rather than (for example) to building walls as a means to upend what created climate vulnerabilities and the climate crisis in the first instance.
Which brings us to one other thing that makes the City’s climate justice claim so unsettling.
Oakland sits squarely within the United States, a country that owes to other nations – island nations, nations of the Global South, and Native nations of the northern hemisphere, to name a few – a long overdue, unpaid climate debt. These nations did not cause the climate crisis. We did. Consequently, Oakland, too, is a debtor.
Nevertheless, Oakland – and San Francisco, and other U.S. cities, and other western nation cities – appropriates the climate debt framework by which these other nations have been holding the U.S. and other western states accountable. By so doing, it cloaks itself in a shroud of innocence – innocence regarding the political and economic plunder, powered by fossil fuels, from which Oakland has surely benefitted. Hence, the City has proceeded in court, and in the public sphere, as if it is not complicit in the production of climate changes that are beginning now to devastate other nations. Just as problematically, the City has proceeded as if it has nothing to do with how western nations have protected and empowered fossil fuel companies to secure western plunder and hegemony.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
None of this means that Oakland – or other U.S. cities, for that matter – should drop its suit against fossil fuel companies. Nor does it mean that Oakland should drop its social justice claim. The seas are coming, and these fossil fuel companies – which have deceived us all, regardless of the costs – must pay. Moreover, so long as they remain in Oakland and segregated within the City’s low elevation areas, Oakland’s vulnerable communities will need the protection that the sea walls will afford.
However, Oakland must contend with its lack of innocence. All of the California cities as well as others that are suing fossil fuel companies must contend with their lack of innocence. They must rethink the climate reparations they seek as a means to both protect and make whole the communities they have harmed and endangered, both here and abroad. When they build up their walls and other infrastructure to guard against rising waters, they can – and must – tear down the walls that are their own legacies of slavery.
That is the climate justice their vulnerable communities need.
Let’s face an uncomfortable truth: even as we amp up our climate resistance, we might nevertheless reach, and then exceed, crucial climate change tipping points. No matter how hard we organize, no matter how many “fossil fuel-free” resolutions we pass, no matter how often we march, we might still end up rushing inexorably toward climate change catastrophe.
Indeed, it is increasingly likely that we will.
Turn away from this possibility and you turn away from climate justice…
(Read more at: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/06/12/just-dystopia-climate-activism-must-include-planning-worst-case-scenario).
Barbecuing while black. Attending a college tour while Mohawk. White people so frequently call the police on people of color who are merely exercising or enjoying their rights that perhaps we need to think of these calls as hate crimes. Clearly, the women and men who are so quick to dial 911 are not only motivated by bigotry; they are also, I would argue, driven by a hateful desire to use police as their proxy both to oppress and to injure – physically, legally, and spiritually – the men, women and children whom they report.
With this in mind, then, I offer below suggested changes (in bold) to California’s “Hate Crime” laws (thank you, Becky). May it inspire the passage of state legislation throughout the country to end this abuse once and for all.
PENAL CODE – PEN
PART 1. OF CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS
TITLE: BARBECUE BECKY ACT OF 2018
CHAPTER 1. Definitions
422.55. For purposes of this title, the following shall apply:
(a) “Hate crime” means a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim:
(4) Race or ethnicity.
(6) Sexual orientation.
(7) Association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.
(b) “Hate crime” includes, but is not limited to, a violation of Section 422.6.
CHAPTER 2. Crimes and Penalties
(a) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him or her by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(b) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall knowingly deface, damage, or destroy the real or personal property of any other person for the purpose of intimidating or interfering with the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to the other person by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States, in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(c) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall report to the police any other person for the purpose of oppressing, intimidating or interfering with the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to the other person by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States, in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.*
(d) Any person convicted of violating subdivision (a), (b) or (c) shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both the above imprisonment and fine, and the court shall order the defendant to perform a minimum of community service, not to exceed 400 hours, to be performed over a period not to exceed 350 days, during a time other than his or her hours of employment or school attendance. However, no person may be convicted of violating subdivision (a) based upon speech alone, except upon a showing that the speech itself threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat. No person may be convicted of violating subdivision (c) based alone upon a threat to call the police, except upon a showing that the defendant who issued the threat also 1) threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat; 2) knowingly defaced, damaged, or destroyed the real or personal property of a specific person or group of persons; and/or 3) previously called the police, is known to have called the police, or has a record of calling police for the reasons described in subdivision (c).
(e) Any person who commits a felony that is a hate crime, or attempts to commit a felony that is a hate crime, and who voluntarily acted in concert with another person, either personally or by aiding and abetting another person, shall receive an additional two, three, or four years in the state prison, at the court’s discretion.
(a) It is the public policy of this state that the principal goals of sentencing for hate crimes, are the following:
(1) Punishment for the hate crimes committed.
(2) Crime and violence prevention, including prevention of recidivism and prevention of crimes and violence in prisons and jails.
(3) Prevention of the routine use of police to oppress, intimidate, injure and terrorize the classes of persons listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(4) Restorative justice for the immediate victims of the hate crimes and for the classes of persons terrorized by the hate crimes.
(b) The Judicial Council shall develop a rule of court guiding hate crime sentencing to implement the policy in subdivision (a). In developing the rule of court, the council shall consult experts including organizations representing hate crime victims.
*Examples of the violation of this law include, but are not limited to, calling police on a specific person or group of persons (listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55) who are merely peaceably engaged in such mundane activities as 1) barbecuing at public parks, 2) attending a college tour, 3) waiting peaceably for friends at a café, 4) napping in a dorm common room, 5) golfing, 6) shopping, and 8) inspecting repairs to a home.
“The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963,” explained the Venerable monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his June 1, 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., “is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand.”
To King’s “Western Christian conscience,” the practice of self-immolation was indeed incomprehensible. Therefore, King “turned to” Thich Nhat Hanh (whom he considered a friend) for help in understanding this practice, which to King appeared to be suicide driven by despair about our nation’s war on Vietnam. “The Press spoke then of suicide,” Hanh continued in his letter, “but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” Steeped in their Buddhist practices, the nuns and monks who burned themselves thus performed an “act of construction” rather than “an act of destruction,” Hanh wrote, because to die in this way is “to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”
This letter came to my mind when I heard that David S. Buckel had doused himself in gasoline and then set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last Saturday. Like the Buddhist monks and nuns about whom Hanh wrote, Buckel, too, wrote letters in which he explained why he self-immolated, letters he sent to the press and to the police. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Though he fought so ardently in the courts for what seemed, just two decades ago, impossible to achieve–the right of LGBTQ people, like me, to marry–David Buckel looked upon our climate politics and determined that, unlike the case of LGBTQ rights, litigating climate change would not be enough. It would not be enough, that is, to save us from climate catastrophe. Given his choice of protest, Buckel clearly believed as well that nothing we are doing now will save us from catastrophe.
So like the Buddhist nuns and monks of the Vietnam War era (Buckel actually likened his protest to that of Tibetans who self-immolated to protest the Chinese occupation of their country), Buckel set himself on fire. He set himself on fire to alarm us, to awaken us, to move our hearts, and to call our attention to the suffering we are causing because we continue to burn fossil fuels. He set himself on fire so that we would see ourselves, and our planet, on fire.
Yet, Buckel also set himself on fire because he held us in hope–hope that, as witnesses to his death, we would take action that actually reflects the scale of the environmental crisis we are facing. “This is not new,” Buckel said of his protest, “as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see. Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
After he explained to King the meaning of the nuns and monks’ self-immolation, Thich Nhat Hanh turned his full attention on King himself. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent…You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action.”
Speaking to his friend, Hanh made clear to King that ultimately what he needed to grapple with was not the fact that the monks and nuns burned themselves. Instead, King needed to come to terms with the fact that he and other well-meaning people looked upon the suffering our government inflicted upon the Vietnamese people and nevertheless remained silent. Though King had been “engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” he was relatively quiet concerning the war on Vietnam, and so Hanh’s words were a gentle rebuke. Two years would pass before King would finally stand up and, in his own words, “break the betrayal” of his “own silences and…speak from the burnings” of his “own heart” regarding our nation’s war on Vietnam.
And speak he did.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones,” King declared in his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
David Buckel decided on the protest that best suited his convictions. While we might declare, in spite of Buckel’s explanation, that his act is incomprehensible; and while we might get caught up in debates about whether or not his self-immolation was wrong-headed or dangerous or crazy or ineffective or brilliant, all of that is of no matter. In the end, we have to look at ourselves. We have to attend to our own silences or, rather, our relative quiescence in the face of what we are doing to one another, to other beings, and to our planet–silences that equal death, as Buckel’s burning body proclaimed. Moreover, if we are to survive our own folly–if we are to avoid setting ourselves on fire–then we will need to break, finally and decisively, the betrayal of our own silences. We will need to protest with as much conviction as our climate crisis demands.
This post originally appeared in Counterpunch.
The Wretched of Mother Earth: The Handbook for Living, Dying, and Nonviolent Revolution in the Midst of Climate Change Catastrophe
“Let’s just assume our grandchildren are fucked.”
My new book is out.
Inspired by Sogyal Rinchope’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Leela Fernandes’ Transforming Feminist Practice, The Wretched of Mother Earth is a mixed-genre Buddhist, feminist, post-colonial, anarchist manifesto about climate change that is also a meditation on dying and death. It is a work in which I argue that if we hope to save ourselves from climate change catastrophe, we must face not only the prospect of human extinction; but also we must radically confront what produced the climate crisis in the first place: the “colonial power matrix” and our deadly attachments to it.
“This [book] is an invitation to experience the transformative power of heartbreak that weaves a healed earth community out of the raw material of grief and fear.” ~Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center for Nonviolence
Good, bad, or ugly: I invite your reviews of my recent work.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. presented this choice to the nation in his powerful speech “Beyond Vietnam” — a speech he delivered exactly a year before he was assassinated — he was referring to the Cold War arms race and the possibility that the United States and the Soviet Union would kill us all in a nuclear holocaust. He implored us to choose peace, which for King meant that we needed to address the deep “malady within the American spirit” — namely, our commitment to the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” This commitment — this sickness — not only drove our arms race and the Vietnam War, King contended, but it also made us a nation of people willing to risk annihilation in order to preserve what was fundamentally an unjust way of life. For King, the escalating war in Vietnam, which he believed brought us closer to nuclear war, compelled us to choose — if we wanted to survive — a “person-oriented” nonviolent world marked by racial and economic justice over a “thing-oriented” world marked by war, racism and economic inequality.
[You can read the rest of this article in Buzzflash].
“This is the price of freedom,” said former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in reference to Stephen Craig Paddock’s mass shooting in Las Vegas last month. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are. The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”
Every time a gun massacre occurs in this country, opponents of gun control (like Bill O’Reilly) ask us to look beyond the carnage and see instead the very meaning and measure of American freedom. In particular, they insist that we decipher from the bodies not our failure to secure – for all of us – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; but instead our triumph over the tyranny of government and despots, as well as security from the threats we face from one another (or, more precisely, threats from the “Other,” usually coded as black and brown).
Thus, after the recent mass shooting by Devin Patrick Kelley in Sutherland, Texas, we were asked again to look beyond the dead and see our liberty. “Lawmakers and pundits on the left,” wrote Justin Haskins of the conservative Heartland Institute, for instance, “have already started to call for increased gun control laws that would strip law-abiding citizens of their Second Amendment rights in the name of protecting innocent Americans. But, as Benjamin Franklin once rightfully observed, ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’”
If the carnage of “innocent Americans” signifies freedom and the “price” we pay for it – or, to put this differently, if we’re supposed to understand Devin Patrick Kelley’s and Stephen Craig Paddock’s purchase, control, and use of firearms as epitomizing American freedom, then it is abundantly clear that what some opponents of gun control want to secure – even at the expense of elementary school children and babies attending church – is neither freedom from tyranny nor protection from others. No, what they want to safeguard, more than anything else, is the freedom to tyrannize or exercise power over, the freedom to be the threat and terror, rather than the ones threatened and terrorized. For what Kelley and Paddock did, after all, was the essence of tyranny.
Perched high above his victims and armed with over forty weapons, Paddock shot at and terrorized vulnerable and defenseless children, women and men who were, of all things, enjoying a country music concert. Paddock killed fifty-eight people and injured hundreds more.
Armed with two handguns and an AR-15 (an assault-style rifle) – as well as outfitted in tactical gear and a ballistic vest – Kelley first shot into Sutherland’s First Baptist Church, where his victims were perhaps singing hymns or praying or reciting Bible verses. And then he went inside the church to continue his assault, killing twenty-six people and injuring twenty.
I think it is safe to say that none of the victims posed a threat to Paddock or Kelley.
All of them, in fact, were defenseless, sitting ducks. To the victims, it must have seemed that Paddock and Kelley were damn near invincible. And by taking their own lives (though the jury is still out about whether Kelley killed himself), both gunmen guaranteed – as tyrants often do – that none of the victims and victims’ families would ever be able to hold them accountable for their crimes.
So when we hear some opponents of gun control condemn gun massacres, ask us to pray, and then talk about freedom, we should be clear that their sentiments are, in reality, celebrations of tyranny and terror, couched in terms of our “essential Liberty.” We should understand that the Paddocks and Kelleys are necessarily, in these gun control opponents’ world view, freedom fighters because they own and use (no matter how horrifically) firearms; and that the dead, maimed and traumatized children, women and men are, for all intents and purposes, fallen soldiers for a just cause (rather than the victims of gun-toting despots) because the person who shot them was exercising his Second Amendment rights. Opponents of gun control would have us believe, in fact, that the dead and injured took a bullet so that we might enjoy living as a free people.
This is all bullshit, of course. And it should come as no surprise that, for gun control opponents like O’Reilly, tyranny is freedom because, for them, tyranny is policy, both foreign and domestic. Tyranny over women, over LGBT communities, over the poor, over black and brown people, over other nations, over the environment, over other species, over people of other faiths – such tyranny constitutes the substance of their health care proposals, tax plans, trade regimes, local bathroom ordinances, court nominations, budget priorities. Tyranny is the point of their greater America.
Consequently, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is “not [a] spontaneous” outburst “of raw brutal energy that breaks the chains of civilized customs,” as Slajob Žižek observed (Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors) with regard to the “brutal reaction in males” that “social dislocation” often “provokes.” It is instead “something learned, externally imposed, ritualized: part of the collective symbolic substance of a community.”
Indeed, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is precisely what celebrations of freedom as tyranny inevitably produce.
Originally published in Counterpunch.
What do you get when a climate-change denying president appoints a climate-change denier as director of the Office of Management and Budget?
You get a climate-change denying budget.
The Trump administration’s “Taxpayer First” (FY 2018) is the epitome of climate-change denial. Not only does it propose draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, eviscerate federal climate change-related programs in all federal agencies, reduce federal spending on science research, and cut all funding of international climate change programs; but it also shreds the social safety net, severely reduces infrastructure spending, and guts foreign aid that has helped (however problematically) lift people out of severe poverty.
In other words, it is a budget that guarantees the federal government – at a moment when we actually need to take collective, radical climate action – will function neither as a force that can galvanize us all to meet effectively the climate crisis, nor as the people’s protection against climate-change related catastrophes of our own making.
Taxpayer First instead reaffirms the “three policy pillars of the neoliberal age – privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending” – all of which, as Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything, are “incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels,” and in an equitable and socially just manner. These actions include wartime-level public spending on infrastructure repair; massive investment in wind, water and solar energy; the transformation of our mega-agricultural systems that are major sources of emissions; and, the reordering of our emissions-intensive system of trade. They are actions that must of necessity be taken hand-in-hand with the expansion of the social safety net, for the economic consequences of our need to reduce drastically emissions (8-10 percent a year) over a relatively short period of time are far-reaching.
The denial in Taxpayer First goes even deeper, however, for this indecent document makes clear that the cuts proposed actually constitute the framework by which the denialist Trump administration (with a little help from congressional and corporate fellow travelers) hopes to make climate-change denial itself not only structural — a process helped already with the appointment of deniers like Jeff Sessions, Ben Carson, Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, as federal agency directors — but also the logic upon which the federal government operates. Indeed, the administration seeks to free up the government so that it can perform – and encourage us to perform – as if there is no climate change cliff that we are dangerously approaching.
But that is not all. Through this cruel budget the deniers in charge are effectively asserting that a robust, people-centered and climate-responsible government is itself a climate change hoax that must be thoroughly exposed, debunked and abandoned. In its place must stand the “truth,” i.e., a government that gives free reign to corporations, rewards the wealthy with significant tax cuts, makes citizens responsible for their own welfare, and considers environmental regulations wholly unnecessary. In its place, in other words, must stand a government that is the triumph of truth over climate change fiction, the heroic unmasking of a grand and expensive lie perpetrated by the left (and colluding scientists) that, in the end, has wasted everyone’s money (to paraphrase OMB Director Mick Mulvaney).
Of course, such a government cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, honor the Paris Accord (given the denial in which the budget is steeped, it should not have surprised anyone that Trump pulled out of the agreement).
The cynicism of Taxpayer First cannot be overstated. It is, quite simply, a declaration of war on all life, waged by people for whom climate-change related catastrophes (like the floods in Sri Lanka) and even human extinction are acceptable risks in the quest for profit and power. It is further proof that deniers would rather see a scorched earth than admit the failures and destructiveness of their neoliberal gospel of wealth, consumption and trade – that they would rather, in fact, destroy everything than see a world organized around the redistribution of wealth and the protection of our only home.
And it is further evidence, finally, that we will have to be the radical climate action we have been waiting for.
A version of this article also appears in Counterpunch.
We should dispense once and for all with the term “climate-change deniers.”
Because “climate-change deniers” keeps us from calling out these women and men – and most especially those who occupy the White House, Congress, and state houses – for performing disbelief about something that, more likely than not, many of them actually accept as true: our climate is changing radically due to human activities.
Most of them, I would wager, believe the science and need us to believe that they don’t. And they need us to believe them, or at least to take seriously the possibility that they honestly disbelieve, not only because they derive benefits from pretending and sowing doubt; but also because the last thing they want is for us to fashion a politics that contends with the frightening truth that even though they know, They Don’t Care.
They don’t care that our glaciers are melting.
They don’t care that sea levels are rising.
They don’t care that the permafrost is thawing and will likely release unsustainable amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.
They don’t care that our oceans are acidifying.
They don’t care that our water tables are decreasing.
They don’t care that “extreme weather” is becoming the new normal, that resource conflicts due to climate change are turning children, women and men into climate refugees, that species are dying off at an alarming rate.
They don’t care.
And they don’t care that we can actually save ourselves, as well as other beings with whom our lives are inescapably intertwined, from the catastrophes climate change will produce.
This includes the unthinkable catastrophe of human extinction.
They don’t care because caring does not serve their interests.
H.R.673 – To prohibit United States contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund.
115th Congress (2017-2018)
On January 24, 2017, Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer [R-MO-3] – who has argued that “for far too long, American tax dollars have been sent to the United Nations to produce controversial science and feel-good conferences” – introduced H.R. 673 to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill expressly forbids “any Federal department or agency” from making contributions to, or for, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Green Climate Fund.”
Not only would this legislation undercut both international efforts to assess “the science related to climate change” (IPCC) and the legal framework within which the international community is addressing the climate crisis (UNFCCC); the bill would also significantly weaken efforts both “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries” and “to help adapt vulnerable societies to the unavoidable impacts of climate change” (GCF).
To introduce such a bill goes beyond disbelief in climate science, for its purpose is to make impossible our capacity both to reach a level of certainty about climate change and its impacts, and to act upon what we discover. It is to silence.
But even more to the point: to introduce such a bill – and to then sign on and make it the law of the land (which this Congress will probably do) – is exactly what you do when you believe in the science and you don’t want the people to know the truth.
Representative Luetkemeyer is a true believer who simply does not care.
Neither do the co-sponsors of his bill. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, for example, is himself the sponsor of the Stop the EPA Act. Both Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona have regularly questioned the science of climate change. The other co-sponsors – representatives Louis Gohmert (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Ann Wagner (R-MO), Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and Robert Latta (R-OH) – are equally as problematic. None of them score more than 7% on the League of Conservations Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard.
And all of them are recipients of energy sector dollars, the very fact of which should cause us to question their doubts and disbelief – especially since these can be so easily purchased by petro and other energy interests.
If these “climate-change deniers” who populate the halls of government are actually true believers of climate-change science, then we should be clear that the policies they produce and enact in such areas as, for example, health care, civil rights, immigration, labor, international relations, education, and taxes necessarily bear (and will bear) the weight of their nihilistic disregard. After all, men and women who do not care about the looming catastrophes of climate change knowing full well that they are looming, are by and large unlikely to propose health care legislation that is good for us or craft fair labor policies or offer legislation that recognizes the humanity of immigrants. And certainly they will fall short in proposing anything that protects our rights as a free people.
In other words, these faux climate-change deniers can be counted on to pass legislation that expresses their disregard for the vast majority of us.
And even if we take them at their word and suppose that they are true nonbelievers, their inaction concerning (if not indifference to) such phenomenon as sea level rise and melting permafrost suggests a profound lack of concern on their part for what is happening now, before their very eyes. It’s not as if these self-identified nonbelievers are championing mitigation plans or are trying to figure out how to support people increasingly displaced by drought and floods and extreme weather events. If anything, they’re trying to clear the way for more fossil fuel extraction and dependence. This is how nonbelievers operate.
Whether they are believers or nonbelievers is thus really of no matter. In either case, they do not care.
So let’s dispense with the “climate-change deniers” nomenclature. We are up against men and women in power – from corporate board rooms to the White House – who are willing, and happily so, to drive us over the cliff of climate catastrophe. They know that that is where they are driving us while believing, all along the way, in the science that is warning us that we are steadily and dangerously approaching that cliff.
They could really care less.
Climate activism, then – hell, all of our activism – must change accordingly.
UPDATE: Representatives Glen Grothman (R-WI), David Rouzer (R-NC), and Brian Babin (R-TX) have added their names to the list of co-sponsors.
These are photos from the 2003 world-wide marches and protests that occurred as the Bush Administration –operating on the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – moved inexorably towards its war on Iraq:
On March 20, 2003, the United States started bombing Baghdad.
We marched a little more.
But our government did not stop and has not stopped bombing Iraq (which we do now for different reasons that trace back to the original lie). We will probably continue to bomb Iraq over the next four years.
Like those anti-war marches, our marches yesterday were powerful. We pledged our resistance to Donald Trump, the GOP, the administration that is shaping up, and the policies that they hope to inflict upon us.
Trump and the GOP, however, don’t give a damn about our marches. Like Bush, they intend to bomb anyway – bomb health care, bomb social security, bomb civil liberties, bomb the Treasury, bomb reproductive rights, bomb the poor, bomb immigrants….
In addition to Iraq, they intend to bomb some other country, most likely Middle Eastern.
The only question, then, is what resistance will we offer that will not prove as impotent as our resistance during the Bush years? Will we walk away from these marches, giddy with the delusion that they are the only work that we need to do?
Or have we learned the lesson of Iraq (I have great hopes that we have), which is that the world pays a huge price for – that children, women and men suffer and die because of – our political quietism and submission to those in power, of which our anti-whatever marches have too often been the first phase?
Sogyal Rinpoche argues that in the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, “we find the whole of life and death presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos.” The word “bardo,” Sogyal explains, is “commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously, throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.” Bardos are thus moments “charged with potential, when whatever you do has a far-reaching effect.”
This juncture between the end of the Obama years and the beginning of the Trump years is more powerful than we might realize. Though it is certainly a time to organize resistance to what are shaping up to be (as Trump’s cabinet picks indicate) reactionary and repressive policies, it is also a moment of liberation, or at least the possibility of it – and not just from the failed politics and strategies of the Democratic Party.
This bardo, for example, is a moment in which we should unhesitatingly meet the challenge of many of our neighbors’ declared commitment to an alt-democracy, authoritarianism, and white nationalism, by not only abandoning altogether any investments we have in the narrow politics of nationalism and national identity (which are bound up anyway with xenophobia, racism, violent masculinity, greed, and war without end); but also by freeing ourselves into a more expansive and radical sense of identity and kinship.
In this regard, the convergence at Standing Rock is instructive: women and men from around the globe and from all walks of life traversed the boundaries of nation, state and city to stand nonviolently with the Sioux against state and corporate repression and to protect our natural resources. In the process, they prefigured an alternative identity and community, defined in terms of Earth, water, and the fundamental connection we have with one another.
That kind of kinship the violent politics of our nationalism (embraced by both Democrats and Republicans alike) not only deny outright but actively seek to repress. And yet such kinship is what we should pledge allegiance to, now, as the basis from which we battle and create meaningful alternatives to the dystopia offered by Trump and his supporters.
This moment is also the time to accept that other challenge posed by our neighbors: to “make America great again.”
While the slogan is, as many have argued, a promise to secure forever an America frozen within an oppressive past and unsullied by the passage of time (in this regard, “make America great again” is not unlike the slogan on which Alabama Governor George Wallace ran in 1963 – “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), it is also, to a great extent, a call for an American imperial order that will exist in perpetuity.
In other words, “make American great again” is the expressed hope of a people who cannot imagine change, who cannot imagine a post-American imperial future and the necessity of just such a future for global peace. Consequently, many of them are willing to embark upon a repressive and antidemocratic project through the leadership of man who is decidedly authoritarian.
This bardo, then, is the time to free ourselves from any subtle, unspoken attachment we have to a timeless United States, knowing that it keeps us in a permanent posture of war and makes it impossible for us to imagine a just and peaceful alternative global order. Our attachment, in fact, is antithetical to peace since peace demands that we change.
Which brings me to a final point, one inspired by Neal Garber’s argument that “America died on Nov. 8, 2016” and that “whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7.”
America did not die, of course. And it is, absolutely, the same place.
Would it not be wise, then, to sit in this bardo and ask whether the democracy we practice is ultimately an inadequate answer to the question of what it means to be liberated? Might November 8 signify that our democracy is forever scarred by, or designed specifically to produce, the injuries inflicted by colonialism, capitalism, slavery, the repression of women, and the prerogatives of wealthy, propertied white men?
We should not ask these questions lightly, especially since so many of us and our ancestors have warred and died and amended and litigated to make this nation live up to its promise that it is the champion of “liberty, justice, and equality” – that its people are “free.”
But maybe this democracy is, in ways we perhaps cannot see, inherently exclusive, an idea that actually structures injustice and inequality as freedom. Maybe the democracy we have can only be reinvented as an alt-democracy because it is alt, because our constitution was, for most of its existence, a doctrine made intentionally silent about the travesties and injustices upon which it was grounded.
So maybe now is the time for us to ask an entirely different set of questions that not only take us to the heart of what we mean when we talk about being a free people; but that also open us up to grander, more liberating alternatives that our democracy might very well suppress.
I stopped being afraid once I came out of the closet.
I didn’t stop being afraid the first time that I said, out loud, repeating the words of Audre Lorde: “I am a black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” No, the end of fear was a long process, not an instant.
And I didn’t stop having moments of fear or panic. Those come, sometimes with great force, and often early in the morning, in the darkness, in the silence.
What I mean, though, is that once I was willing to step out of the closet and be completely vulnerable – to expose myself knowing that I could very well become (even more) an object of hate and of violence from people who looked like me and from those who didn’t– once I allowed myself to be that raw, I became absolutely and devastatingly powerful.
For make no mistake about it, that kind of vulnerability announces, in no uncertain terms: no matter what you say or do to me, I will not back down. I will not cower. I will not be silent. I will not hate you –but hear me clearly: I mean to be free.
This is yet another terrible, frightening moment in our nation – in the world, really, where children are bombed and washed up on distant shores and shot in neighborhood parks and told that they will be chased out of their homes and across borders into countries that do not know them.
We live in dangerous times, where men and women in power feel no allegiance to their neighbors — men and women who peddle fear and hopelessness in nihilistic pursuit of profit. Men and women who are not in their right mind, really, because they would rather destroy everything — all of us — than share anything.
To their insanity we are – no question about it – completely vulnerable.
But it would be a terrible mistake to construe that vulnerability as helplessness and weakness instead of as our power and strength.
That rawness you feel? That’s your spirit calling you to stand tall and be free, because something in you knows already that to those who would oppress us, nothing is more frightening and dangerous than a woman (or a man) who has much to lose and yet steps out anyway in the midst of madness to insist on her rights, to claim her freedom, to protect her brothers and sisters, to love as a radical answer to hate, and thus to convey that, come what may, she shall not be moved. Not one inch.
Be dangerously vulnerable.
As I was waiting for my lunch today at a San Francisco farmer’s market food truck, I was suddenly roused – by the sounds of a cheering, boisterous crowd – out of the post-Trump election stupor that I had been nursing all morning. When I turned to look in the direction of the noise, I noticed that about one hundred people were gathered in front of a theater close by. I assumed that some play actors had emerged from the theater to address their excited, waiting audience, so I quickly lost interest and returned to my November 9 fog.
Before I could settle into more dark thinking about Tuesday’s election, I was roused again by the noises of the crowd. This time, it was walking in my direction and cheering, “Love Trumps hate” and “Not our president!” It was a crowd of kids – high school students, I assume – who were holding signs and happily disrupting the flow of farmer’s market traffic. As they passed by, two gentlemen not far from where I stood shook their heads. “Hmph!” one said in disbelief. “It’s too late now!” An older woman, probably in her sixties, chimed in and, in an accusing tone, shouted, “you should’ve done something a long time ago!” Another woman, a bit younger, stood by silently watching the kids and fighting back tears.
Contrary to what the gentleman seemed to think, the kids – from what I could discern – were not lost in some fantasy that somehow they could turn back the election of Trump. Nor did they seem like kids who stood on the sideline and waited until it was too late to do anything (and given that they were obviously too young to vote, what was it that the older woman beside me thought that they should have done? What did she do or fail to do?).
In fact, the kids were clear: they would not claim as President of the United States a man who disavowed and demonized their brothers and sisters. It was that simple.
And in their giddiness, in the joy they so obviously felt in protesting this horrendous election, they also made clear that they were having none of our shitty cynicism or crippling despair. Mourn, yes! they seemed to be telling us. But tap into the power of your grief to resist and to organize. If you can’t, at least get out of our way.
If you can’t teach your children well — which, in truth, is to teach them radical hope — then at least be wise enough to let them teach you.
“Militarized police responses,” writes Emmanuel Hiram Arnaud, “are now a staple of local government’s response to the body politic’s exercise” of its fundamental right – enshrined in the First Amendment – “to peaceably assemble.” Fortified with such “military-style equipment” as “riot and camouflage gear,” semi-automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and tear gas, the police – in places as disparate as Ferguson, Missouri and the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota – now routinely transform into war zones places where women and men have peaceably assembled. In the process, they transform the women and men who have gathered into enemies whose rights the state is not bound to respect.
While much has been said about the challenge militarized police pose to our freedom of speech, “there has been little public discussion,” as Arnaud notes, on how law enforcement’s “increasingly violent response to acts of protest may encroach on the protective intention of the right to peaceably assemble.”
As a consequence, we have generally failed to use these violent police encounters as an opportunity not only to defend our First Amendment right; but also to explicitly affirm public space as the people’s space – as a place where we freely exchange ideas, organize, invigorate our democracy, demonstrate that we can and must challenge power, prefigure alternatives to what is often blindly accepted as “just the way things are,” and openly check those who would make of democracy a thing that benefits only the few. It is where we do democracy, in fact, where we teach one another what it means to be a free people. And it is where we demonstrate what the Founders so clearly understood: that the ability to peaceably assemble – in public and in private – is freedom itself.
The ways that we collectively transform public space when we peaceably assemble, the ways we make it a source of democratic power, is precisely what is so threatening to government and, indeed, to corporate interests. In other words, what we do as a matter of right “out there” in the open, while the whole world watches, is the reason the right to peaceably assemble is, as Maria Nassali writes, “one of the most restricted rights” worldwide (increasingly, national governments – including our own – have been “clamping down on independent civil society spaces,” often “under the guise of,” for example, “combating terrorism”).
When the police show up at our protests, then, with all the violence of their military hardware, they both usurp our right to peaceably assemble and banish us to the private sphere where we are to consider our grievances to be merely private, individual concerns. Police killings and fossil fuel pipelines? Those are only personal worries that require individual solutions. Thus, smile and say “hello” to a police officer. Pray for the Sioux. Don’t drive; walk!
When these militarized police show up, they also seize and, in the process, attempt to redefine public space as the domain solely of state and corporate power. In fact, they become the means by which our local, state, and national governments subtly and not-so-subtly mark mass mobilizations (like what we are seeing at the North Dakota pipeline site) as criminal trespasses, or more nefariously, as outright enemy invasions of government and business territory.
But assemble we must, for “when people hold assembly, they shift the power to the people,” declares Article 20 Network, a New York-based organization that I encourage you to support because it does the immensely important work of defending and advancing “the human right of Freedom of Assembly worldwide” (I am proud to say that I serve as Article 20 Network’s volunteer Nonviolence Advisor).
Given that shift, we need to be talking a lot more about the power of our assembly, and to covet the right to peaceably assemble just as passionately as we covet that other First Amendment right – you know, the one we are so willing to discuss ad nauseam (freedom of speech) and that is itself under siege every time the local army of police invade our peaceably assembled actions and events. After all, when the police chase us away with their machine guns and tear gas and armored vehicles and pepper spray, all that remains is silence.
Want to learn more about the Freedom of Assembly and Article 20 Network? Go to http://a20n.org/. You can sign up for alerts, explore Freedom of Assembly organizing and activist resources, and support A20N with your donation.
In this podcast sound bite I honor the life of Tom Hayden by asking, whither our peace movement?
On climate change and domination: Some thoughts on the Baton Rouge police protests, policing and rain
Many of us are no doubt familiar with the image, captured by photographer Jonathan Bachman, of Ieshia Evans as she faced Baton Rouge’s police during a peaceful protest this past July against the police killing of Alton Sterling. Clad in a light, airy sundress on that hot and muggy midsummer day, Ieshia stands her ground as the police move in to arrest her. A far cry from the riot gear in which the officers themselves are clad, the sundress in which Ieshia is clothed underscores both her vulnerability and her power. To stand against such a militarized force, knowing the violence with which it is capable, reveals an inner fortitude on her part that exposes the force’s own vulnerability, the kind unmasked when people resist injustice.
What Ieshia is also standing against, however (though she cannot yet see it, nor can we), is an impending rain storm – and not just any rain storm, but one that will dump 7.1 trillion gallons of water over the Gulf Coast, displace nearly 30,000 humans, take the lives of thirteen, destroy tens of thousands of homes, and visit similar, if not worse destruction on the lives and habitats of untold nonhuman life forms in Louisiana.
Indeed, this was a special storm, for as climate scientists recently concluded, it was “made more likely because of climate change.” That is, it was made more likely because “humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere” through our “rampant use of fossil fuels.” Since the 1860s, we – or more accurately, the global North – have “spewed into the atmosphere” over 500 billion tons of “human-generated greenhouse gases” (primarily carbon dioxide) that are trapping heat near Earth’s surface and are thus causing Earth’s average temperatures to rise (between “1880 and 1990, the global North was responsible for 84 percent of all fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions and 75 percent of all deforestation-related carbon dioxide emissions”). This global warming is creating the kinds of conditions that increase the probability that weather events like the Gulf’s August three-day rainfall will occur more often – “40 percent more often” – than “in our preindustrial past.” We can now expect to see such “extreme weather events” in the Gulf region once every thirty years – maybe “even more.”
I offer the image of Ieshia Evans standing against the Baton Rouge police while she (and many others) simultaneously stands against the Gulf storm not only because it is crucial to see that both the policing of African Americans and climate change share a particular history; but also because that shared history requires us to see our carbon-laden atmosphere itself as domination – domination powered, to a great extent, by the pursuit of policies and practices (including unjust policing) done to (though increasingly by) people of color as well as to seen and unseen nonhuman life forms, all for the benefit of the few, but most especially for those of the global North.
Like Baton Rouge policing, climate change was, as Chris J. Cuomo reminds us, “manufactured in a crucible of inequality.” In particular, it is “a product of the industrial and the fossil-fuel eras, historical forces powered by exploitation, colonialism,” Jim Crowism, and “nearly limitless instrumental use of ‘nature.’” In other words, the colonial powers of the global North made the planet hotter as they transformed the “subsistence economies” of the global South “into economic satellites of Europe” and, in the process, “wreaked havoc on the peoples and environments of the colonized territories.”
Climate change, of course, continues to be manufactured within a “crucible of inequality,” for it proceeds unabated within and on behalf of a “’colonial power matrix,’” within, that is, the “‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism’” –“anthropocentric, androcentric, heterosexist, rationalist, Euro/Western-centric, modern/colonial, racialized, industrialist/developmentalist, capitalist, and ableist” – and to which the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is absolutely crucial. Powered by seemingly endless military adventures and neoliberal economic policies, as well as by policies embraced by elites in the global South to raise their societies’ standard of living, global warming proceeds apace. Carbon dioxide concentrations (currently a little over 400 parts-per-million) are “now greater than at any time during the past 800,000 years,” and Earth’s temperature is fast approaching 2°C, the surpassing of which will be catastrophic for the entire planet.
Considered in light of this history and this present moment of “coloniality,” i.e., a moment in which colonial forms of power persist, our “dramatically altered” global atmosphere is, in a very real sense, an atmosphere of domination, one that is intentionally imposed upon us all and that makes “extreme weather events” – whether rain or snow or heat or wind – the continued felt experience, by all forms of life, of human acts of exploitation and violence that produced, and continues to produce, a warmer Earth.
The colonial power matrix, in other words, is literally in the air.
Although we did not notice it, it was as much in the air as it was on the ground the moment Ieshia Evans stood against the police and against the crucial role that policing plays, all over the globe, in creating the crucible of inequality out of which climate changed is manufactured.
It was also in the air in that moment when G4S – the private security team hired by Dakota Access, LLC – set its dogs on the Standing Rock Sioux, who had been standing and continue to stand firm to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on their land because the pipeline (the tribe contends) will contaminate their drinking water, destroy or harm sacred sites, and ultimately contribute to climate change. It was in the air when machine gun-wielding and riot-outfitted local police descended upon and arrested pipeline protesters. And it was in the air during the military checkpoints conducted by the National Guard deployed “on the outskirts of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.”
Though the Baton Rouge and pipeline protests concern different issues, the remarkable confluence of policing at both tells us a great deal not only about how the atmosphere gets constituted as domination; but also about the degree to which addressing and mitigating climate change is inseparable from confronting and dismantling the kind of structural injustices that we see in the policing of black and other communities of color.
So, for instance, if you look closely (with 400 parts-per-million of carbon in mind) at the pipeline confrontations, you just might see that the radically altered atmosphere in which they take place is actually a thing that G4S, the local police, and the National Guard defend. For it is not the mere construction of a pipeline that the private and state security forces hope to safeguard for Dakota Pipeline, LLC and other corporate interests; it is, more critically, the actual burning of fossil fuels and thus the manufacture of a chemically altered atmosphere – because therein lies the profit.
In other words, G4S, the local police, and the National Guard serve private interests (G4S also guards the BP pipeline in Colombia; the Basrah Gas Company in Iraq; “emergency vessels operating in the Niger Delta for Chevron” – you get the picture) in pursuit of a project that requires the exploitation of Native lands, the repression of the Sioux, the fouling of natural resources and, finally, the burning of fossil fuels. The Dakota Access pipeline, then, is a project in which global warming is the necessary end result.
But the damn Sioux are in the fucking way. Again.
The police in Baton Rouge – a force that is the legacy of Jim Crow – are not any less aligned with fossil fuel interests. They operate, after all, in a state committed (with federal support) to the drilling, extraction, and burning of fossil fuels – all with full knowledge that these activities will warm the earth.
Thus, in spite of the destruction that the Gulf rains caused Baton Rouge – a majority black city where almost 25% of the population lives below the poverty rate, and where the median household income is approximately $39,000 – the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nevertheless moved forward to auction off “for fossil fuel drilling and exploration” an area in the Gulf that is “the size of Virginia.” This auction occurred just a month after the rains. And although hundreds of outraged Gulf coast residents descended on New Orleans to shut down the sale, which took place at the Superdome (the very site where New Orleans residents sought refuge when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina), the sale proceeded. Protestors were arrested, leases were secured, and global temperatures continued to rise at record-breaking levels.
So what we witnessed in Baton Rouge on those three stormy days in August was rain, certainly; but it was also rain bearing the imprint of a politics of exploitation, such that it was the felt experience of a history of domination and of a present marked by the continued exploitation of Earth, of nonhuman life forms, and of the poor, especially those in formerly colonized nations. That same imprint is what we see in the photo of the police/Ieshia Evans encounter, where the police appear like an impending storm that will soon overtake a woman – defiant and unyielding – clad in an light and airy sundress.
What kind of justice can be achieved within a context – within a matrix, that is, where the state/police is aligned with corporations in their pursuit of fossil fuel profits and power at the expense of all life on Earth, and with little or no regard for the particular ways climate catastrophes – very likely produced by our radically altered atmosphere – impact communities of color the world over? Indeed, what is justice under a such a regime?
And to what degree is the state violence that is directed against African Americans and against the Sioux – the cold-blooded police murders of men like Terence Crutcher – a measure of our nation’s unwillingness to do all that is necessary to address climate change? How is it even possible to meet the demands of our climate crisis without undertaking a radical politics of decoloniality, without speaking everywhere and all the time of our altered climate – and even our “extreme weather events” – in terms that conjure (for example) conquest, colonialism, settlers, genocide, apartheid, indentured servitude, rape, Bantustans, Jim Crow, racial segregation, annexation, partition, national liberation, neocolonialism, western-propped dictatorships, proxy wars, neoliberalism, policing, regime change? Who living within our oppressive atmosphere can afford to be, or remain invested in, the murderous, nihilistic colonial power matrix that is driving millions of life forms to extinction?
And how can we not stand against it (and thus against our own complicity) by standing with the Ieshias and Siouxs of our warming planet, who by resisting those for whom the colonial power matrix is worth maintaining – even if it will destroy life on earth as we know it – increasingly face repression, displacement, imprisonment and even death? How?
When pressed to explain why they are backing their candidate, some of Donald Trump’s white supporters often answer with a critique – one that Trump himself articulates – in which they couple America’s multiculturalism and growing multicultural population with, for example, trade agreements like NAFTA, corporate relocation of American manufacturing jobs overseas, and business reliance on cheap immigrant labor. Not surprisingly, this coupling has been routinely analyzed and condemned as racist scapegoating of people of color – primarily African Americans and Hispanics – for economic problems not of their own making.
Yet the fact that these Trump supporters interweave neoliberal policies and practices into their frequent invectives against multiculturalism indicates that something else is at work. Indeed, it suggests that what we might be witnessing is blow back from what Jodi Melamed (“The Spirit of Neoliberalism”) calls neoliberal multiculturalism – the “incorporation of U.S. multiculturalism into the legitimating and operating procedures of neoliberalism” – and thus blow back from neoliberal proponents’ evocation of multiculturalism to champion their economic policies and practices as the embodiment of our national ethos; from the framing of “neoliberal policy as the key to a postracist” and multicultural “world of freedom and opportunity”; from the fact that multiculturalism functions now as our nation’s “official antiracism,” through which neoliberalism – and thus our economic dominance – is cast as “in harmony with some version of antiracist goals”; from the ways multiculturalism serves as the expression and face – both politically and aesthetically – of U.S. global military and economic power; and, from capital’s cosmetic readjustments to our rapidly growing multicultural society – its commercials of interracial couples, biracial children, and bilingual voice-overs.
Most especially, however, Trump’s support appears to be blow back from the fact that neoliberalism has innovated, through its incorporation of multiculturalism, “new” means of “fixing human capacities to naturalize inequality,” and in ways that do not exclude – on the basis of race – folks like Trump’s supporters from its discipline and punishment.
In essence, the Trump campaign appears to be driven in part by a revolt against the “new racism” that neoliberalism has produced.
Within the framework of neoliberalism, Melamed tells us, multiculturalism “codes the wealth, mobility, and political power of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries to be the just deserts of ‘multicultural world citizens.’” At the same time, it represents those whom “neoliberalism dispossesses” as “handicapped by their own ‘monoculturalism.’” Neoliberal multiculturalism thus innovates “a new racism,” one that “rewards or punishes people for being or not being ‘multicultural Americans,’ an ideological figure that arises out of neoliberal frameworks.” In fact, it “extends racializing practices and discipline beyond the color line” – beyond, that is, the white supremacist logic of race as phenotype. As a consequence, “new categories of privilege and stigma determined by ideological, economic, and cultural criteria overlay older, conventional racial categories” – meaning, that “traditionally recognized racial identities” (like white identity, for example) “can now occupy both sides of the privilege/stigma opposition.”
This is all bad news for those Trump supporters who not only desperately cling to monoculturalism (as expressed, for example, by their desire to “Make America Great [white] Again”), but who also live and work in a hypersegregated white world. As economist/researcher Jonathan Rothwell found, the women and men “who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors constant, support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out within the commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”
Within the framework of neoliberalism, to be so damn white is to be, or to risk being cast as, just another Other.
This might help to explain in part why Trump supporters at times speak of themselves in terms of racial marginalization, terms they conflate with their lost (or perceived lost) fortunes under a neoliberal economic order that they understand to be at odds with their particular identity politics because it is aligned with the multiculturalism they loathe. To them, nothing signifies this alignment more clearly and demonstrably than the triumph of Barack Obama, who for eight years has stood at the helm of the neoliberal global order and who Trump supporters blame for policies (like NAFTA, for example) enacted prior to his administration.
Of course, it goes without saying that neoliberal policies have absolutely created great suffering for many whites who support Trump – especially those who are poor – and have opened a space for neoliberal policymakers and cheer leaders to explicitly and unashamedly frame these whites as undeserving, shiftless and lazy (monocultural) Others. “The truth about these [white] dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” wrote Kevin Williamson of the National Review. “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”
White suffering, however, goes hand-in-hand with the fact that whiteness remains privileged within our economic and political order, and in spite of the new racism that neoliberalism has produced. We still operate, as Melamed explains, under “a racial-economic schema” that “continues to associate white bodies and national populations with wealth and nonwhite bodies and national populations with want.” Thus, whites who do fall on the side of stigma are nevertheless privileged Others, a people excluded from the kinds of brutal racial procedures that neoliberalism “adapts,” for example, to “innovate new forms of racialized wage slavery such as one finds in the free trade zones of the global South.” Nor are these white Others subject, to any comparable degree, to the kind of discipline and punishment meted out (for instance) to poor, hypersegregated/monocultural African Americans, discards of our racial capitalist regime.
None of this should be surprising, of course. After all, capital and state power remain firmly in the hands of primarily white elites – like Trump – for whom multiculturalism is a means to expand their wealth and power because it facilitates the opening of markets abroad. Within neoliberal frameworks, in fact, white men in particular are the consummate neoliberal subjects, against which most of us are measured and frequently found wanting.
The willingness of Trump’s supporters to not see in neoliberalism white elite power is itself a testimony to their deep investment in the “old” racism of white supremacy, long ago rejected (Melamed tells us) as the official racism of the state in the service of global economic expansion. That investment compels Trump’s supporters to speak in the very terms that mark them as Other (as we saw recently, for example, in the New York Times video of whites at Trump rallies. While that video exposed the raw racism of the candidate’s supporters, it simultaneously framed them – and invited us to see them – as Other). Ironically enough, the more they vocalize their racism, the more they announce themselves as men and women who are unable and/or unwilling to reconstitute themselves as proper neoliberal subjects, i.e., as neoliberal multiculturalists.
Lest we be tempted to say, “so what?”, we would do well to consider this: the very framework that marks Trump’s racist supporters as Other is also a framework that denies – and renders unspeakable – the existence of racism altogether.
Neoliberal multiculturalism articulates our nation, and the neoliberal project that our government serves, as nonracial (or, as Melamed writes, neoliberalism has effectively incorporated “U.S. multiculturalism in a manner that makes neoliberalism appear just,” while it obscures “the racial antagonisms and inequalities on which the neoliberal project depends”). It condemns as “divisive” antiracist critiques of neoliberalism and U.S. racial politics – condemns them as that which actually creates racial division, discord, and inequality. Moreover, it invites punishment and disapprobation upon those who both challenge racist practices and expose neoliberalism as being the racist plunder that it is.
Thus, it should come as no surprise, for instance, that those who organize under the banner of Black Lives Matter are frequently attacked for defending, against neoliberal policing, those presumed to be undeserving of our regard – the black/monocultural children, women and men who are marginalized not because of any political and economic policies (we are told), but because they have failed to refashion themselves as proper American neoliberal subjects, i.e., as disciplined and efficient rugged individualists, self-styled entrepreneurs and competitors in our free market society. Indeed, BLM defense of the undeserving marks BLM itself as the ultimate Other, to which state surveillance and violence, along with “All Lives Matter!” (an incantation of neoliberal multiculturalism if ever there was one), are appropriate, disciplinary responses.
So what seems to be unfolding before us, then, is a racist revolt against a racist paradigm – a revolt that speaks not so much to a desire on the part of Trump’s supporters to upend neoliberalism per se, as it perhaps speaks to an unspoken desire to reconstitute it as an explicit articulation of white power. And why would they want to upend neoliberalism, after all? Contrary to the myth that they’re all poor whites who are beset by low wage employment, addiction, and so-called broken homes, many of Trump’s supporters, as Rothwell discovered, are not particularly distressed. They haven’t been “disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration.” On average, they don’t “have lower incomes than other Americans.” And they are not “more likely to be unemployed” than the rest of their countrymen and women. To the contrary, they have done relatively well for themselves, even if the communities in which they live have taken a downturn.
But as monoculturalists, they are entirely vulnerable to neoliberal multiculturalism’s racializing discipline.
Trump, then, is not only the promise of an end to that vulnerability; he is also a beginning, the promise of a new new racism, one that resembles – and honors – the racism of old. Or as one supporter put it: “He’s the last chance we have to…preserve the culture I grew up in” – the last chance, that is, to preserve a culture of white economic, social, and political privileges that can be passed on, ad infinitum, to future generations of white monocultural Americans.
Originally published at CounterPunch.
“It is critically important to recognize and start working through how the moment of violence and the moment of neoliberalism coalesce.” – Simon Springer
If we examine through the prism of neoliberalism the killing of Philando Castile – that is, if we think of the killing as a moment when violence and neoliberalism coalesced – then we are immediately confronted with the fact that, to a great extent, the current problem of policing is a problem of neoliberal policing. It is a problem of the production of police as officers whose enforcement of the law is guided by neoliberal policies and procedures, the violence of which no amount of body cameras or use of force training or diversity training can adequately address. Indeed, the fact of neoliberal policing requires from all of us a radically different response to policing and police killings, a response by which we directly confront policing, and our governments’ constitution of law enforcement, as neoliberal practice.
So let’s talk about this moment when neoliberalism and violence converged:
Over the course of fourteen years, Minnesota police initiated at least 52 encounters (a staggering number) with Philando Castile, citing him for minor offenses like driving without wearing a seat belt, speeding, and driving without a muffler. These encounters resulted in Philando being assessed a total of $6,588 in fines and fees.
Given these circumstances, let’s assume (indeed, it is probably safe to assume) that St. Anthony Police Department – the police department that employs Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando – operates under a scheme similar to the one that was in place in Ferguson, Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
Under that scheme (as the U.S. Department of Justice found), City of Ferguson officials “routinely” urged its Chief of Police “to generate more revenue” for the City “through enforcement” and to meet specific revenue goals. In response, the Chief pressured his officers and created a culture in which officers competed with one another in generating revenue; created opportunities to issue citations in order to meet revenue goals; engaged primarily African American citizens as objects from which they could profit as well as subjected them to the department’s and City’s market discipline; and, measured their own value and success as police officers in market terms (the department looked favorably upon and rewarded officers who met their revenue demands).
Through this scheme, the City in essence transformed the police into neoliberal police officers, into men and women who would enforce the law in ways that folded penal discipline into the “market-driven disciplinary logic” of neoliberalism, and whose policing became the expression of what Simon Springer calls neoliberalism’s “fundamental virtues”: “individualism, competitiveness and economic self-sufficiency.”
As they sought out opportunities to generate revenue, officers also engaged in the kind of ‘Othering’ upon which neoliberalism depends. As Springer writes, neoliberalism not only “treats as enemies” those “who don’t fit the mold of a proper neoliberal subject” (e.g., possessive individualism, economic self-sufficiency); it also “actively facilitates the abandonment of ‘Others’ who fall outside of ‘neoliberal normativity’, a conceptual category that cuts across multiple categories of discrimination including class, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, age and ability.”
Ferguson’s neoliberal police officers (and city officials) regarded African Americans and poor people as those who don’t fit the mold. The latter were not the victims of neoliberal policies that had been embraced on a local, national and global scale. Instead, they were failures, people who were unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and remake themselves in the ways that the market demanded. Consequently, it was right to treat both as objects by which to profit and “as enemies” who needed to be disciplined and controlled.
That the City’s scheme and the neoliberal logic behind it would create the circumstances that led to Michael Brown’s death is clear. Indeed, through that scheme Ferguson officials and the police department produced a “‘state of exception,’ wherein…exceptional violence” – i.e.., violence that shocks, that “elicits a deep emotional response” – was “transformed into exemplary violence,” into violence that “forms the rule,” and particularly for those excluded and abandoned. Without social media, Brown’s death would have merely been a part of the everyday violence that police directed at Ferguson’s African American community and poor people generally, violence made increasingly likely by the market driven imperative of the Ferguson police force. And of course Brown’s death took place against the backdrop of the invisible violence of the City’s neoliberal policies (creation of unequal and increasingly privatized schools, attraction of business that paid little taxes and employed workers at low wages, privatization of public services, etc.).
If Officer Yanez worked under a governmental scheme similar to the one in Ferguson, then in that moment when he pulled the trigger (four or five times) he embodied, expressed and enacted the neoliberal principles and logic by which his department and his city operate.
But let’s suppose that the St. Anthony Police Department is not a business enterprise disguised as a police department, made so at the behest of city officials. Does that change the conclusion?
We live in the context of a global neoliberal order. And to a frightening degree, “we have become entrepreneurs of our lives,” as Johanna Oksala writes, “competing in the free market called society.” Indeed, we “compete in an ever-expanding range of fields, and invest in ourselves by enhancing our abilities and appearance, by improving our strategies of life coaching and time management. Our life has become an enterprise that we must lead to success.”
In other words, we are all neoliberals now, and as Springer argues, all of us are “implicated in the perpetuation of neoliberalised violence.”
A few months ago, I complained to my partner that the preschool our three-year old attends had not yet taught her the alphabet and numbers – at least not in any way that in my mind reflected academic rigor. “How is she going to succeed?” I asked. “When she gets to kindergarten, all the other kids will be way ahead.” I was ready to pull her out and send her to a school with a more disciplined, focused program, one that would lead to her academic success and, eventually, her career success. Lurking in the back of my mind was the fate of black girls, who have very little the market recognizes as valuable.
Let me repeat: my daughter is three. She attends a school in which learning happens outdoors – in a forest – where the kids discover things like rabbits and tadpoles and swarms of ladybugs and dead birds and, from those things, learn about habitats and camouflage and metamorphosis and death.
Against a neoliberal, market-driven idea of education – one that permeates the public sphere and that has redefined the purpose of school and education – I measured this wide-open, wonderful way of learning and found it wanting. Without even thinking about it, I was ready to subject my three-year old to the disciplinary logic of a neoliberal education and thus to perform an act, the violence of which (to creativity, to learning) I could not see.
Even if Officer Yanez had not performed his duty in accordance with the kind of policies that guided Ferguson’s police department, he nevertheless killed Philando within the context of a broader neoliberal framework that marked men like Philando as always already outside of neoliberal normativity (black male + broke ass car = enemy) and denied them any claim to the neoliberal virtues of economic self-sufficiency and possessive individualism. As to the latter, black people throughout United States history have been cast as anything but a collection of individuals. Instead, we are a monolith that can be used and disposed of at will (hence, Dallas police killer Micah Xavier Johnson is not Micah Xavier Johnson as such; instead, he is Black Lives Matter).
Moreover, that broader neoliberal framework, which defines (in the words of Lester Spence) “freedom in market terms rather than political terms,” is a racial capitalist framework that defines African Americans as unfree Others in order to naturalize class hierarchies. Thus, when Officer Yanez encountered Philando, he encountered an unfree Other who – in spite of that mark – had the audacity to claim the status of a free person by openly carrying a gun. Officer Yanez encountered the enemy.
My point in all of this is that Officer Yanez – like all of us, like me – was (is) immersed in neoliberalism and inevitably internalized as well as reproduced it in his employment life (and probably in his personal life as well). He was armed with it, so to speak, when he encountered and then killed Philando Castile, and I suspect this was true as well for Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri.
Finally, even if St. Anthony’s had not been blatantly transformed into a business enterprise, it nevertheless operates within a national and global paradigm of policing that aligns police with the interests of capital. As Oksala notes, governments throughout the world have adopted policies and practices designed to “intervene in the very being of society in order to make competition the dominant principle for guiding human behavior,” and to “give competition between enterprises and entrepreneurial conduct maximum range.” These policies and practices proceed from the understanding that maintaining these conditions for capital requires “objective, extensive and efficient state-violence,” i.e., “effective practices of policing.” They proceed from the understanding, in other words, that such violence is and must be “inherent to neoliberal governmentality.” When Officer Yanez approached and killed Philando, then, the police department for which he worked was hardly operating outside of this paradigm.
If what we are witnessing in these violent encounters with police is neoliberalism in action, then we have to come up with an entirely different set of solutions to change policing. This is not to dismiss body cameras and training, which will no doubt save some lives. But they are technical fixes that do not address at all the neoliberal character of our police departments, the transformation of peace officers into neoliberal police, the policies that align policing with corporate power, and the violence that neoliberalism produces.
In fact, these fixes amount to our use of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. After all, through neoliberal policies governments regularly take “outside of the realm of the political” the myriad problems that communities face and then render these problems “technical and actionable,” as Lester Spence has observed. So when we offer solutions like body cameras, we make fixing the police a technical matter rather than a political matter, and in so doing we legitimize and further entrench neoliberal policies and practices that enact invisible, spectacular, and ultimately normalized violence on those who don’t fit the mold. The consequence is that we’ll continue to receive tweets and Facebook feeds of police killings.
But we’ll also see more retaliatory killings of police officers – like the killings that occurred recently in Dallas and Baton Rouge – as more people realize that neoliberal policing, and the violence it enacts, is exactly the kind of policing our governments intend. Such counter-violence, however, is extraordinarily ironic, for individuals who engage in retaliatory killings – individuals who are, and will likely continue to be, primarily men – ultimately express just how deeply they have internalized the ideals and attributes that constitute the Virtuous Neoliberal Citizen: self-reliance or rugged individualism, personal responsibility, distrust of government, efficiency, cruelty. With an Izhmash-Saiga 5.45 mm rifle or some other AK-style weapon in tow, they alone will fix the problem of police violence, and in so doing, they will precisely, and finally, fit the neoliberal mold.
Repairing the police and our system of policing, then, clearly demands that we end not only neoliberal policing, but also the transformation of men and women into neoliberal police. To do this, we must relentlessly break down these moments of violence between officers and the community in order to unearth the neoliberal politics they express and enact, and that our government officials (local, state, national) continue to impose upon us at our expense (and for the benefit of the wealthy), but most especially at the expense of our abandoned, disposed children, women and men.
It is through this kind of work, in fact, that we can begin to upend an order that neoliberal proponents present as the only alternative and that appears all-powerful and all-encompassing. By doing this work, we’ll discover just how much neoliberalism and the violence it produces is, as Oksala makes clear, a “specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing” – including the hiring, training, management and oversight of police – that we absolutely have the power to change.
This article also appears in CounterPunch.
I can’t stop thinking about Dae’Anna – Diamond Reynold‘s four year-old daughter who was in the car when police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile, Reynold’s boyfriend. Specifically, I can’t stop thinking about Dae’Anna’s words to her mom as her mom broke down crying while sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car: “It’s okay mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
I have a three-year old who crawls in bed with me whenever I am incapacitated with the pain of a migraine. She lies on my chest, kisses my face and says “It’s okay, momma.” I know that in such moments she is terribly afraid, and that it hurts her deeply to see her momma in such agony. So when I heard Dae’Anna comfort her mother during that incredibly violent, horrific event, I was not surprised, and I knew in my heart of hearts that not only was Dae’Anna unimaginably afraid; she was also in great pain – for her mother, for Philando, for herself. Maybe even for Officer Yanez.
She was also frighteningly vulnerable.
In my heart of hearts I also know that the violence suffered and perpetrated by adults must be answered by turning toward Dae’Anna – toward little black girls and other girls of color everywhere, especially those who are poor – and asking: what is required of us to make the world safe for you? What must we do to ensure that little girls never have to turn to mothers who are forced to flee war, to flee men, who suffer poverty and racism, who suffer through the violence of routine traffic stops and the funerals of kin cut down in the prime of life by state-sanctioned and private acts of violence and say, “It’s okay, mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you”?
We turn to them for our answers because it is clear that to resolve the question of their safety and well-being, and (by extension) that of the entire planet, is to commit unhesitatingly to a political, economic, and spiritual revolution that will completely upend the structural and gendered violence by which our society – all of it – is organized and in which all of us are immersed. To turn toward our little girls is to examine, through their eyes, what we have built and to see without blinders the shitty ways we recreate the very circumstances that force them – the most vulnerable in our society – to be their mothers’ comfort and keepers in the midst of violence (slow and fast, visible and invisible) that is also their own trauma and inheritance.
Indeed, if we can ever get to the point where we can say that our girls are safe and thriving — that society is right and just — it will be because we will have courageously and selflessly undertook the labor of radically transforming everything, every damn thing, from the bottom-up. It will be because we will have put to rest the very logic that has created a society that not only renders black people disposable; but that also renders violence “the most important tool of power” as well as “the mediating force” – to use the words of Henry Giroux – “in shaping social relationships.”
Ultimately, if we can ever say that our girls are safe and thriving, it will be because we had come to understand that the meaning and measure of a just society could have only been defined in terms of the needs and care of the least of these. We would have finally understood that this inescapable network of violence (racism, neoliberalism, militarism) — of which war, gun violence (nay, the very ownership of guns) as well as racist, militaristic policing are the articulate expressions — could never have been tweaked or refined or perfected enough to coexist with justice, and that it could have only guaranteed that four year-old black and brown girls would forever be witnesses to, and thus victims of, the horrors it inevitably produces.
So let’s transform the words “It’s okay mommy” into a subversive call to action, into a promise we make to our little girls, and thus to ourselves, that we will transform this world into one where we all – but most especially they – will be absolutely okay.
When Georgia Representative and civil rights movement veteran John Lewis likened the extraordinary sit-in staged last week by House Democrats (a sit-in he lead) to the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama – “We crossed one bridge,” Lewis stated, “but we have other bridges to cross” — he invited us all to see the Democrats’ sit-in as nonviolent direct action in the tradition of the civil rights movement and as an expression of the movement’s highest ideals.
Just as Selma protesters, for example, were champions of nonviolence against the violent and unjust system of racial segregation, the Democrats (Lewis suggested) were champions of nonviolence (i.e., gun control) against a violent system of gun ownership and accessibility, a system that the Republican leadership – through its refusal to allow a House vote on gun control legislation – both upholds and reproduces. And just as Selma protesters persisted in spite of the violent defiance of Selma’s power structure – “it took [Selma protesters] three times,” Lewis reminded us, “to make it from Selma all the way to Montgomery” – so, too, would Democrats persist in the face of House Republicans’ defiance.
The two proposals over which Lewis and his Democratic colleagues staged the sit-in, however, cannot be reconciled with either the Selma movement or with nonviolence. In fact, both proposals – a ban on gun sales to women and men on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, and the expansion of background checks on prospective gun buyers – are so steeped in violence that they effectively render the Democrats’ sit-in, a sit-in for violence.
Consider this: the first proposal rationalizes a system that, as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, is “error prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.” Indeed, the system is applied in an “arbitrary and discriminatory manner,” such that it functions by and large to target, criminalize, and harass (and thus do violence to) Arab and Muslim communities (ironically enough, Representative Lewis himself was watch-listed, an experience through which he found that the system “provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations”).
Furthermore, because the first proposal is justified as a matter of “national security” (as California Senator Feinstein asserted during the course of the sit-in), its function, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, is ultimately to “strengthen the country’s security state and to further justify the ‘war on terror.’” That war, according to a joint report issued by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has so far cost at least 1.3 million human lives (the cost to the lives of other sentient beings, we must presume, is equally astronomical).
Although seemingly benign in the context of gun control, background checks – the subject of the second proposal – also reinforce a security state framework and, like the first proposal, do nothing to “address the underlying causes of violence in America.” In fact, the proposal – and by extension, the House Democrats’ sit-in – presupposes that the legitimate ownership of guns is the absence of violence. And yet gun ownership is violence, just as the stockpiling of nuclear weapons is violence.
Nonviolent direct action that is not grounded in a transformative commitment to nonviolence, that “neither contests nor seeks alternatives to the dominant imperial mentality of the day” (to borrow the phrasing of Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi in “The Violence of Nonviolence”), is action that can be easily deployed to champion policies that are, in fact, inherently violent.
Such is how we must view the House Democrats’ sit-in. Not only did the Democrats legitimize legislation that reinforces systemic violence; they also failed to offer anything remotely transformative (such as, for example, legislation that bans guns altogether and commits the United States to international gun control). And they certainly didn’t offer any critique that tied gun violence to “relatively invisible forms of structural, epistemic, and everyday violence” or to our culture of violence.
Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. had organized a sit-in on Vietnam in which he called not for the end of the war, “racism, militarism, and materialism” – and not for a “revolution of values” – but merely for the cessation or limited use of Agent Orange.
Given who John Lewis is and the fearlessness with which he confronted the violence of segregationists in Selma and elsewhere, I don’t offer this critique lightly. But as a state actor, he has – along with his colleagues – turned nonviolence on its head. On the floor of the House, the Democrats’ nonviolent sit-in was state violence dressed in nonviolent clothing, and in so being it left unquestioned and undisturbed the structural and spiritual underpinnings that not only shaped the Orlando massacre that triggered the Democrats’ sit-in, but that also continue to drive the everyday visible and invisible violence that continues to roil communities the world over.
As many of you have heard by now, the Verizon strike was, by all indications, a successful labor action with far-reaching consequences for future union organizing. On April 13, 2016, close to 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job because Verizon refused to renew its contract with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – the two unions representing Verizon workers. The company insisted that any new contract had to include terms that, for example, enabled it to outsource thousands of jobs, reduce retirement benefits, and send workers out of state for specific work assignments.
Rather than accept these fundamentally anti-labor contract provisions, the workers voted to go on strike – a labor action that turned out to be the largest one conducted in the U.S. in the last four years. Though Verizon tried to break the strike by (for example) eliminating workers’ health benefits and hiring scabs, it utterly failed, for throughout the course of the strike Verizon was faced with an unsympathetic public, a Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton walk on the picket lines, falling profits, inept scabs, expressions of solidarity from members of Congress, and tremendous strike discipline on the part of Verizon workers. By the end of May, Verizon relented and agreed to a number of favorable union contract terms. It also dropped many of the contract demands that it made prior to the strike.
On June 1, 2016, most of the striking workers returned to work.
What you might not know, however – because it got very little attention from the press – is that the strike was precipitated in part by Verizon’s refusal to negotiate with its Brooklyn, New York retail workers, who are primarily African American.
Two years ago, these workers had the audacity to organize and join CWA. In fact, they were “the first retail workers to form a union in Verizon Wireless.” However, the company refused to negotiate with them any raises, any improvements in benefits and working conditions – any contract whatsoever. By so refusing, Verizon made clear not only that it wanted to smash the union even before it got off the ground; but also that it was entirely comfortable with the fact that its employees found it difficult to make ends meet on the wages they earned, often couldn’t secure adequate health care for themselves and their families; couldn’t contribute much to the economic well-being of their communities; and, ultimately returned home every day to communities crowded with people who faced similar, if not worse, circumstances.
This latter point regarding the distress in places workers call home was not addressed at all during the course of the Verizon labor strike. And yet it is arguably the most critical point, precisely because of what it says about both the effects of corporate anti-labor policies on the communities in which workers live and labors’ failure to secure more broad-based support for unionization.
Let’s assume, for instance, that the African American retail workers who unionized two years ago actually live in Brooklyn, where black people constitute 35.2% of the Brooklyn population as a whole (note: my attempts to speak to union representatives about the Brooklyn retail workers were unsuccessful). And let’s assume further that these workers live in the primarily black neighborhoods that cover a mere 4 mile square area of Brooklyn (close to one million African Americans and blacks from the diaspora reside in this New York City borough, making it home to the largest concentration of black Americans in the nation).
While Brooklyn is certainly a space where black people thrive in so many ways, it is also a place of high black poverty and unemployment. Almost a quarter of Brooklyn residents live below the poverty line and, of that number, 23.7% are black (the numbers recited here reflect 2015 estimates). The unemployment rate in Brooklyn’s primarily black neighborhoods ranges from 8.1% to 12.5%, and “over half of the residents” who reside in these highly segregated communities “spend more than 30% of their monthly gross income on rent.”
In Brownsville – a Brooklyn neighborhood that is 75% black; “the poorest…in Brooklyn”; “the seventh-poorest neighborhood” in New York City; and, has “the second-highest” incarceration rate in the city (“three and a half times the Brooklyn and citywide rates”) – 10.7 % of the residents are unemployed and a whopping 38.6% live below the poverty line (the median income in Brownsville is $25,291).
Finally, in all of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods, many of the residents – like others throughout New York City – go “without needed medical care” in spite of the existence of Obamacare. A consequence is that too many deaths in Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods are entirely preventable.
When we examine the distress of the communities in which the newly unionized African American retail workers more likely than not live (we can presume this precisely because Brooklyn is so segregated), then we are necessarily confronted with the fact that Verizon’s refusal to negotiate a contract with them directly contributed – in some small way – to those communities’ distress. That is to say, we see that, through its workers, the company actively helped to reproduce these Brooklyn neighborhoods as communities with large numbers of people who work for low wages or no wages at all; who spend a huge percentage of their income on rent; who cannot afford or obtain adequate health care when they or their family members need it; whose personal lives are often circumscribed by the whims and demands of their employers; who are economically constrained to live in segregated spaces that, by and large, lack good public schools, affordable housing, and other resources available to Brooklyn’s more affluent neighborhoods; who cannot – because of the wages they earn – contribute much (through taxes, for example) to the economic vibrancy and well-being of their communities; and, who are often policed as if the fact of their economic and social distress makes them criminals.
Did Verizon refuse to negotiate with its Brooklyn retail workers because they are primarily African American? Maybe. Maybe not. We can nevertheless presume that its no-contract strategy could have only compounded suffering (like, for example, residential segregation, employment discrimination, racist law enforcement) that is by and large the product of long term, systemic racist economic and social practices of government and business institutions.
Moreover, it bears noting that African American retail workers in general are more likely than their white counterparts to be working poor, the lowest paid, and offered only part-time work even though they want and ask for full-time employment. Verizon’s actions can be reasonably viewed as part and parcel of industry practices that relegate African American workers to the bottom of the retail workforce and that simultaneously facilitate the exploitation (as well as harm the communities) of working class retail workers as a whole.
In any event, by paying attention to black Brooklyn – by following the newly-unionized workers home or simply considering the neighborhoods where workers live – we see Verizon in the distress of the workers’ communities. And once we see Verizon in that distress, we are compelled to consider and further scrutinize just how deeply implicated the company is in broader corporate/government policies and practices that reproduce social and economic inequalities in neighborhoods across the nation and throughout the world.
The Brooklyn workers’ successful win of a first contract and the success of the Verizon strike generally are great victories – and greater than generally conceived because of the implications of the companies’ no-contract and other anti-labor practices for the communities in which the workers live.
And yet, had the labor action been one through which the unions framed Verizon’s anti-labor policies and practices as fundamentally anti-community, the victories might have been even greater and more far-reaching. Imagine, for example, what it would have meant to hear, as he walked the picket line, Bernie Sanders speak out about Verizon’s role in reproducing distress in black Brooklyn. Imagine how that might have changed the terms by which race, class, and labor were talked about during the course of the strike and the final weeks of the primary season.
Indeed, imagine how such a critique could transform union organizing going forward.
By now it has become a truism that Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential primaries can be attributed in no small measure to the support of white voters who harbor deep, seething resentment and anxiety about “changing demographics” – that inexorable transformation of the white population to minority status. Twenty-seven years from now, the U.S. Census Department predicts, African Americans, Latinos, and people of Asian descent will be the majority, a development apparently frightening if not dystopian enough for some white people to cast their lot with a candidate whose level of self-absorption and inexperience is matched only by his level of contempt for policy, women, Mexicans, and Muslims (that’s just the short list).
But what, precisely, is it about changing demographics that makes Trump so appealing to his white supporters? And why does imagining him in the White House assuage their fears about becoming racial minorities?
No one who has written about demographics and Trump’s appeal has really addressed these questions and, as a result, the phrase “changing demographics” reduces too often to a mantra of sorts, something one repeats with the conviction that it both clarifies and enlightens.
I suspect these questions haven’t been addressed because those who have written about Trump and “changing demographics” assume that the impending population shift will be a rather seamless and mundane political moment – indeed, that it will be a natural evolution through which one kind of body (brown) will, by virtue of its existence, take up the political space and share the power of another (white).
“New political agendas will be set by non-white voters and the non-white politicians they elect,” writes Amy L. Bernstein in “Face it, we’re on our way to being a majority minority country.” “The dominant white power structure will not disappear overnight, but it will be diluted, integrated and subsumed in various ways, great and small. Big money, and big business, may retain their outsized influence, but over time the money will flow to – and from – different hands.”
Sounds painless, right? And yet these key words in Bernstein’s prediction should give us pause: “the dominant white power structure will not disappear overnight.” Let me just restate that sentence in blunter terms: white people (generally speaking, of course) control the nation’s political, economic, social, and military institutions. They will retain this control long after the year 2043, when whites become a minority.
These truths the “changing demographics” mantra – and those who use it to narrate a seamless transition from white majority to white minority status – simply cannot bear. Indeed, the mantra ultimately ensures that we dare not speak the implications of what it will mean, for whites and people of color, when the majority that controls so much becomes a minority firmly in control of so much. More pointedly, the mantra guarantees that we never even consider that some of our countrywomen and men are deeply invested in, and absolutely committed to securing for their and their children’s future, something akin to “white minority rule.”
The politics of the current election cycle, however, beg us to discard the benign “changing demographics” narrative and to come to grips with the sense of crisis – expressed so poignantly by Trump’s successful primary run – that an increasingly fearful segment of the white population is beginning to feel about the transition from majority to minority status.
Indeed, I think it is fair to view the Trump campaign, the GOP assault on voting rights (17 states, Ari Berman recently noted, “have new voting restrictions in effect for the first time and 15 states have new or tougher voter-ID laws”), and the general GOP crack-up as being, in many ways, the messy, ugly work of sorting out and settling, not the question of how to accommodate and live with the reality of an increasingly diverse electorate, but instead the question of how to safeguard white power – the rule of some whites, anyway – when whites are no longer the majority.
In other words, what we’re witnessing with the GOP generally is (as Stan Greenberg puts it) “a ferocious counterrevolution to stop these new and expanding demographic groups from coalescing to form a politically coherent bloc capable of governing successfully” – or, conversely, a war to ensure that “the dominant white power structure” maintains its grip on our political, economic, social and military institutions regardless of how expansive and numerically overwhelming these new demographic groups become. “What happens when we have no control over things?” asked League of the South member and white nationalist blogger Brad Griffin in a recent New Yorker feature article on Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition. “You’re seeing it play out right now.”
For many Trump/GOP supporters, in fact – those who are professed white nationalists as well as those who are not – Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the White House made it abundantly clear that they must act now to secure control for the future. Border walls, disenfranchisement, mass deportation, gerrymandering, continued support for a militarized police force within African American and Latino communities, unfettered gun rights – these just make sense as strategies of containment to guarantee white power now, white power tomorrow, white power forever.
So, too, does support for authoritarian, fascist-leaning, racist, strong-arm leadership. Democracy, after all, has proven to be the enemy, the very mechanism that opened the doors to an influx of immigrants of color and greater political participation of communities historically marginalized through the exercise of white supremacist politics and economics. Donald Trump is thus a godsend, and perhaps in the mind of some a precursor not so much to a future Hitler, but instead to a future F.W. de Klerk. “White men in America and across the planet,” proclaims Daily Stormer website author Andrew Anglin, “are partying like it’s 1999 following Trump’s decisive victory over the evil enemies of our race” (how ironic is it that Stormer makes his white power point by quoting the music of the late African American entertainment icon Prince Rogers Nelson?). “Who needs Muslims? Who needs Mexicans? Once you ask those questions, you think, who needs Haitians?” asked white nationalist American Renaissance editor Jared Taylor during a Wall Street Journal interview. “Mr. Trump is reacting in an almost visceral way to the idea of whites becoming a minority.”
Those Trump and GOP supporters who are driven by their fears of becoming racial minorities are truly canaries in the mine. They are letting us know in no uncertain terms that, for many whites, there’ll be no partying like it’s 2042, no passively facing the fact that “we’re on our way to being a majority minority country,” and certainly no capitulation to the idea that “nonwhite voters” will set “new political agendas” or that “Big Money… will flow to – and from – different hands.” What we’re witnessing now portends even more troubling efforts, by some within and outside of the GOP, to secure white power for a white minority future – efforts that will surely be met with great resistance from the emerging majority as well as from many white people. This is what “changing demographics” means, and if we don’t “face” that – if we don’t speak frankly about being on track for a collision course with those who will resist, at all costs, a “white power structure…diluted, integrated and subsumed,” then we’re setting ourselves up for being wholly unprepared for the possibility of a very tumultuous, if not violent transition.
But we don’t have to stay on that track.
To get off, we need to make a thing of the past the power exercised now by the (not so exclusively white) “power structure,” so that that power won’t be a thing of the future. This we can accomplish precisely by engaging in on-the-ground organizing to up-end the structural economic, political and social inequalities that this “power structure” hopes to make permanent features of everyday life for us all – including many of those who fret about becoming racial minorities. We need to turn “changing demographics” into a mantra for the adoption and implementation of such egalitarian polices as a national living wage, a guaranteed income, fair trade, equitable urban redevelopment and the vigorous regulation of real-estate speculation, free higher public education, targeted and disproportionate funding for public primary and secondary schools located in distressed communities, effective regulation of financial institutions, drastic reductions in defense spending, the expansion of protections for labor organizing, progressive taxes, the transformation of law enforcement into nonviolent community peace keeping units, and the adoption of robust anti-discrimination laws in the areas of housing and employment.
Among other things.
What we need to do, in other words, is make minority status itself – that is, economic and political vulnerability and marginalization on the basis of race – a relic of a white supremacist past.
A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
If Donald Trump is in fact the (GOP) people’s choice, as his “winning, winning, winning” so far seems to indicate, then why are Republican establishment operatives scheming to wrestle from him the party nomination?
I ask this question not because their scheming isn’t entirely understandable. Trump’s refusal to disavow authentically the KKK and David Duke, his rabid xenophobia, his willingness to boast (in a presidential debate no less) of his penis size: these are clearly good enough reasons – in a growing and apparently infinite list of reasons – why Trump is and should be unacceptable to party operatives, both as the GOP nominee and as the potential Leader of the Free World.
But I ask the question, nevertheless, because the ease with which we get lost in Trump’s and his supporters’ authoritarian, crypto-fascist acts and utterances seems to be blinding many of us to the fact that the Stop Trump At All Costs effort is itself an expression of the establishment’s own authoritarian tendencies. Talk of brokered conventions or of a fantasy Cruz-Rubio détente executed with the hope of thwarting Trump’s ambitions is, at base, talk about thwarting the will of the voters, the everyday GOP people for whom Trump speaks. In other words, this talk, this scheming is fundamentally anti-democratic (even if executed in the midst of a process that is itself anti-democratic). As such, we need to call it out for what it is – and that includes calling it out for being part and parcel of, say, the shenanigans that lead to Bush v. Gore; the gutting of the Voting Rights Act; the kind of redistricting that has sealed communities into partisan enclaves; Citizens United; and, a plethora of other GOP anti-democratic politics and policies that have led inexorably to – you betcha! – a Trump candidacy. The party has a Democracy Problem, plain and simple, of which the establishment’s anti-Trump crusade is yet another dangerous expression. To ignore this because the target is Trump is to do so at our peril.
Thirty-seven percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is white. Approximately 14,000 of Flint’s white population live below the poverty line.
Neither statistic has factored much into discussions concerning the water crisis in Flint or in analyses of the “structural racism” that created the crisis in the first place (in fact, pundits and others have cited the statistics merely to show that Flint is, and Flint’s poor are, predominantly African American).
But these statistics matter, and they matter not only because they speak more fully to the suffering state and federal officials visited upon the people of Flint. They also matter because they betray Democrats’ and progressives’ failure to seize opportunities to speak directly to, and be in conversation with, poor and working class whites about the class and race politics that have created much of their suffering. No one who has talked about Flint – not Hilary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not their followers, not progressives in general – has had anything to say whatsoever about just how expendable to Michigan’s white elites are the lives of Flint’s poor and working class white folk. In fact, it is almost as if whites who live at the margins in Flint don’t exist at all (or exist only so that one can make a point about black people and racism).
At a recent event in Harlem, for example, Clinton said of the water crisis: “It’s a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it’s not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy, white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.” During a town hall meeting, Sanders, too, wondered what “the response” would have been had the water crisis happened in “a white suburb.” Flint “is a poor community,” Sanders stated. “It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”
To be sure, both Clinton and Sanders probably considered whites included in the term “poor community.” But it is clear that poor white people were not the point Clinton and Sanders wanted to make. Instead, what Clinton and Sanders hoped to demonstrate (for good reason) was their understanding of how racist policies continue to constrain the lives of African Americans and to serve the interests of well-to-do whites. Or maybe what they hoped for was recognition of what New York Magazine writer Rembert Brown gleefully declared about Hilary Clinton: that they were willing to “chastise” their “own privilege” and, in so doing, to put “the privilege of whiteness front and center.”
If putting “the privilege of whiteness front and center” was what Clinton and Sanders were trying to accomplish (and I believe there’s some truth to this observation), then what they ultimately gave voice to was a class politics on the part of Democrats and progressives that erases the experiences of poor and working class whites, and does so through a racial politics that reifies the myth of a “naturalized, unmarked, homogenized, privileged white identity” (to borrow from law professor Camille Gear Rich’s “Marginal Whiteness”). This myth is one by which white elites have, throughout American history, defined white interests in terms of their own privileges, wealth, and power – as it is also one by which whites who live on the margins have framed (often to their great detriment) their own interests so as to enjoy the privileges of white identity.
Both candidates (as well as progressives who wrote about Flint) could have explicitly talked about how the water crisis was allowed to “happen” just as surely to Flint’s poor and working class white community as it was allowed to happen to Flint’s African American community; how the privileged whites and minorities who live in the “white suburbs” were provided with clean water; how anti-black racism constitutes a set of policies and practices that facilitate well-to-do whites’ exploitation of poor and working class white people (that is, after all, what happened in Flint). And both Clinton and Sanders (who just yesterday visited Flint & addressed the water crisis in front of an overwhelmingly white audience) could have had this discussion without giving credence to the fiction of equivalent victimization.
Indeed, both candidates could have discussed or put “front and center” for analysis and critique their own class privileges vis-à-vis the black and white Flint communities. They could have stated, as Rich observed, that for some whites “access…to the material and dignitary benefits associated with whiteness is not always assured,” and that some whites – like those in Flint, no doubt – “only enjoy white privilege in contingent, context-specific ways.” They could have spoken of whites – and even of African Americans – in terms of differences that belie the myth of homogeneity.
But that kind of discussion did not happen. Consequently, the Flint water crisis remains solely a story about anti-black politics.
Talking about the racism African Americans face in Flint and beyond, of course, is not the problem. In fact, it is necessary. But while Democrats and progressives sustain the myth of a homogenized, privileged white identity and choose not to be in conversation with poor and working class whites about the kind of class and race politics that creates their suffering (whether we’re talking about Flint or inadequate health care), Donald Trump fills the void. Through a racist and xenophobic framework he engages poor and working class whites directly, casting their suffering as the fault of racial others. In the process, Trump recreates and reinvents – by casting himself as the answer to all white America’s woes – the myth of a homogenized and privileged white identity as well as the fiction that white interests are white elite interests. As long as Clinton, Sanders, Democrats, and progressives offer no real alternative – as long as they persist in spinning the myth themselves –Trump might very well capture the White House this November, and with the help of poor and working class whites.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
Moderates…are often correct in perceiving the difficulty or impossibility of racial progress in the context of present social and economic policies. But they accept the context as fixed…They apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty. (Bayard Rustin)
A consensus has clearly emerged among moderate pundits and critics regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: his campaign and platform, they argue, are wildly unrealistic and reveal just how delusional, if not nihilistic, progressives have become. The campaign and platform are unrealistic, they tell us, because if elected Sanders will face “a House of Representatives firmly under right-wing rule, making the prospects of important progressive legislation impossible” (as Jonathan Chait has argued).
Let’s be real: any proposal that seriously addresses the concerns and champions the needs of working people will not get through this right-wing dominated House of Representatives. In fact, nothing left of center, or even a little right of center, will get through the current House. That truth, however, should force a conversation not on whether or not Bernie Sanders’ campaign and platform are realistic, but instead on what it will take – what kind of mobilization or political revolution is necessary –to remake Congress into one more amenable to policies that really address the people’s needs.
Preferring to “accept the context as fixed”(Bayard Rustin’s critique of moderates remains remarkably relevant), moderate pundits and critics have chosen a different path, which is to focus our ire on Sanders and his supporters by forwarding an argument that basically comes down to this: Bernie’s policies are unrealistic because they are not Republican. After all, following the logic of Sanders’ naysayers, his policies would have to be Republican in order to pass in the current House – and even that’s not guaranteed. One need only look at the fate of Obamacare (a Republican brain-child) to understand how precarious would be the success of a Republican policy ushered in by a Democrat (remind me again: to how many repeal votes has that legislation been subjected?).
Whether pragmatic, piecemeal or revolutionary, legislation addressing the needs of ordinary folk will not fare well in this Congress. Since this is the case, we might as well go for broke. In this way, we can at least change the terms of the debates on work, wealth, and war.
Speaking of war: moderates also slam Sanders’ campaign as unrealistic because his policies are “half-baked plans” (as Matt Yglesias recently characterized them) that are “too expensive” to fund.
But in making their case not one pundit has put on the table the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent thus far on the War on Terror or the $18 trillion dollars that this war has added to the U.S. debt. In fact, even as they correctly perceive that, “in the context of present social and economic policies” – and most certainly within the current political climate – Sanders’ policies will face stiff and uncompromising resistance, pundits “apparently see nothing strange in the fact” that in the last fifteen years we have spent such an astronomical amount “fighting or preparing for wars.” No one is talking about war at all, except to remind us about past votes on the Iraq War or the threat of ISIS.
Indeed, moderates who have decried the possible tax burden that Sanders’ platform might impose on ordinary people have had nothing to say about the billions budgeted for this fiscal year alone to fight a war with an enemy that we keep mindlessly reproducing. Instead, they have thrown up their hands before Sanders’ argument that we need to provide tuition-free college education, invest in our infrastructure, make healthcare truly accessible to all and thus free from the grip of insurance companies, and “really abolish poverty.”
The exasperation some critics have expressed regarding the costs of Sanders’ domestic agenda, coupled with their silence on war spending, suggests that what they consider unrealistic is not our war economy itself – even though it has robbed the American people of real opportunities for economic growth and stability; driven (rather than curtailed) hostilities and instability worldwide; deepened poverty here and abroad; destroyed human, plant and animal life, as well as poisoned natural resources; and, created — from Des Moines to Damascus — bitterness, resentment and hate. None of that is “unrealistic.” Instead, what’s a “no-win” is a campaign and political platform that seek to eradicate economic inequality and the drivers of that inequality, some of whom profit, absolutely and obscenely, from endless war.
In other words, what they don’t say is that the war is precisely what makes Sanders’ platform costly. We can’t keep bombing people or launching drone missiles and, at the same time, educate our people for free. The latter, in fact, is economically irrational given the [fixed] context.
I think it’s time to redefine what we call unrealistic.
But I will concede this: Sanders is not without fault. After all, his platform says nothing about the continued costs of our war and how those costs stymie creative approaches to redistribution. Thus, Sanders’ campaign and platform are unrealistic to the degree that they fail to set their sights on the costs of our war economy and war culture. Sanders needs to show (for example) that the Pentagon’s push to expand the U.S. presence everywhere through the creation of “hubs” or Special Operations staging areas will take money out of our pockets, enrich war corporations and CEOs, and succeed in fomenting (and thus increasing the costs of) the very terrorism it presumably intends to defeat. And he’ll have to talk about these war effects in ways that address as well as allay people’s real sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
In other words, Sanders needs to show that as President he will take “full command of foreign affairs” (Jonathan Chait) and redirect us from permanent war to peace and economic prosperity, and through a framework that galvanizes all of us to unseat every single representative who thrives on both our fear and our hunger.
Of course, putting on the table that $1.8 trillion (and counting) is not solely Sanders’ burden to bear since the failure to speak of the economic, social, and political costs of war make all the candidates – whether they support endless war or not – purveyors of fiction. Pragmatism and conservatism are lies we tell ourselves when we continue to sink billions of dollars every year into death and destruction at the expense of everyone’s well-being and peace. We have to be moved to see such waste, and the fantasies by which they are rationalized, as “strange” indeed, as something that calls for us not only to adopt a different set of domestic and foreign policies altogether, but to actually engage politics in a revolutionary fashion – and most certainly in ways that take us beyond the dangerously narrow focus on the race to the White House.
We all need to get real.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
Beyond Identity Politics: MLK’s scathing critique of the Vietnam War in his “most radical speech” troubles today’s identity politics [REPOST]
In the compendium of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, articles, books and sermons, “Beyond Vietnam” stands out to many on the left as the definitive evidence that King had finally become a full-blown radical. King’s speech, they argue, signified his “formal break with…political moderation” because, unlike his previous speeches – which focused primarily on the issue of civil rights – “Beyond Vietnam” took aim (as one critic put it) at “the global struggle of the rich vs. poor.” Even more, it is a speech in which King tied “the American orthodoxy on foreign policy to the structures which perpetrate racial inequality domestically and also to much of the world’s suffering,” as it is also a speech in which he “linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism.”
For these critics and others, not only did such a critique make “Beyond Vietnam” radical (and King’s “most radical speech” to date); it also made the speech “dangerous” – both to the “political and economic power brokers of America” and ultimately to King himself. Aidan Brown O’Shea, for instance, observed that after delivering “Beyond Vietnam,” King “went from being an admired voice for acceptable racial progress in the form of the end of legal segregation among white moderates,” to being “a truly oppositional figure.” His speech may have even “accelerated,” another critic theorized, “the efforts of those who felt so threatened by” King’s “audacity that they murdered him a year after he delivered it.” In other words, “Beyond Vietnam” was ultimately “the speech that killed” him.
It is to “Beyond Vietnam,” then, that many on the left often turn when they talk about King, and it is the speech they are likely to call upon in order to counter the commemorative “whitewashing” of King’s politics that frequently occurs on August 28 – the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – as well as every January, when King’s birthday is celebrated. “Beyond Vietnam,” moreover, is the evidence they provide to rebut conservative efforts to appropriate King’s legacy and to expose the hypocrisy of government officials and others who evoke King to counsel nonviolence and political quietism in the face of injustice. It is even used by some to resist allies’ calls for nonviolence as a way to respond to and organize against unjust governmental action. Ultimately, “Beyond Vietnam” expresses “the real King,” a man who, at the end of his life, was an “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political dissident,” the “ultimate anti-establishment man,” a man who had been moving “slowly toward the philosophy of Malcolm X,” and a “democratic socialist.”
Without a doubt “Beyond Vietnam” is a powerful speech, and in my view it is indeed King’s most powerful. Delivered before a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before his assassination – the speech is, as John M. Murphy and James Jasinski argued, King’s “most comprehensive indictment of the American war effort,” an indictment through which he construed the war as a war on the poor and as a colonialist project that fed what he called the “giant triplets,” i.e., “racism, materialism, and militarism.” As such, the speech belies efforts to harness King to a conservative, status-quo supporting agenda (which, as is most often the case, tends to be solidly grounded in racism, materialism and militarism).
Moreover, because of this speech, King did face a tremendous and unrelenting backlash from the media, from political elites, from the government, and even from allies in the civil rights community – a backlash that, according to historian Taylor Branch, often reduced King to tears.
The Washington Post, for example, pronounced that by taking a stand against the Vietnam War, “‘King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people,’” while Life magazine – engaging in a bit of red-baiting – declared the speech a “‘demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.’” The Board of Directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “passed a resolution against what it saw as an attempt” on the part of King “to merge the civil rights and antiwar movements,” and Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, chided King for making “‘a serious tactical error’” by speaking out against the war. Already treating King as an “enemy” of the state, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover stepped up the Bureau’s surveillance and smear campaign against King, all with the blessing of President Lyndon Johnson who viewed King’s speech as both a personal betrayal as well as an affront to all the work he had done on behalf of civil rights.
Yet, the left’s embrace of “Beyond Vietnam” as a radical text and of King as a full-on radical suffers from its own kind of whitewashing, namely, the subtle cleansing of King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. Almost without fail, when many speak of “Beyond Vietnam” and, more broadly, the “radical King,” they do so either by giving short shrift to King’s continued advocacy of nonviolence and love, or as is most often the case, by subordinating them altogether to King’s “more radical” critique.
In an article where he draws significantly from “Beyond Vietnam” to challenge the “character and political assassination” of King’s work, Eric Mann, for example, tells us that “King was from the outset a Black Militant and revolutionary who advocated non-violent direct action but saw ‘the Negro revolution’ as the overriding objective.” Mann explains that “while” King “strongly argued for non-violence as both a tactical and ethical perspective,” he nevertheless “supported the right of Black people to armed self-defense and allied with advocates of armed self-defense and even armed struggle in the Black movement.”
Notice the way Mann subordinates – through his use of the words “but” and “while” – to “the Negro revolution,” to King’s presumed support for African Americans’ right to “armed self-defense,” and to King’s alliance with those who advocated armed self-defense and armed struggle, King’s commitment to nonviolence. By so doing, Mann gives the impression that King himself subordinated his commitment to nonviolence to all of these other, more pressing issues – or that, at the very least, he put nonviolence and the right of self-defense on equal footing. Mann also implies that King had no quarrel whatsoever with his allies’ calls for self-defense or of armed revolution.
But the truth is a little more complicated. Yes, King did support the right of self-defense, and in his 1959 article “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” – which he wrote in response to NAACP leader Robert F. Williams’ article challenging “turn-the-other-cheekism” as a strategy for confronting white violence – he pointed out that even Gandhi sanctioned self-defense “involving weapons and bloodshed” for “those unable to master pure nonviolence.”
However, King also argued in “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” (1966) that “it is extremely dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense” because “the line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed.” Moreover, it is “ridiculous,” King asserted, “for a Negro to raise the question of self-defense in relation to nonviolence” – just as it would be ridiculous “for a soldier on the battlefield to say he is not going to take any risks.” The soldier is on the battlefield, King pointed out, because “he believes that the freedom of his country is worth the risk of his life. The same is true of the nonviolent demonstrator. He sees the misery of his people so clearly that he volunteers to suffer in their behalf and put an end to their plight.”
And in “Where Do We Go From Here,” a speech King delivered before a convening of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference four months after “Beyond Vietnam,” King specifically criticized those who championed armed struggle as an option for African Americans. “When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective,” King asserted, “the answers are blatently illogical.” Those who “talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments” as well as “talk of guerrilla warfare…fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States.” Declaring that “this is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom,” King went on to call for the strategies “offered by the nonviolent movement” and to assert more forcefully that he “still” stood “by nonviolence.”
What’s clear is that for Mann, subordinating King’s advocacy of nonviolence is critical to his project of claiming King as a Black Militant and revolutionary. Yes, King “advocated for non-violent direct action,” Mann seems to suggest, but he kept armed self-defense and armed struggle on the table.
We see the same kind of rhetorical strategy as Mann’s at play in law professor Camille A. Nelson’s “The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King.” Nelson writes, for example, that society “has captured and marketed Dr. King’s message to minimize the revolutionary impetus of much of his work. But the breadth of Dr. King’s work is vast. He taught about Ghandi-esque principles of love and non-violence. But he also chastised the ugly underbelly of American capitalism with its marginalizing consequences for many people of color and poor whites.”
Nelson’s uses of the word “but” locates King’s nonviolence outside of the “revolutionary impetus of much of his work.” Indeed, in one footnote where she discusses how a watered down King is taught in primary and secondary schools, she makes explicit that his nonviolence is anything but radical. She writes, “children are typically taught that King’s nonviolence, rather than his radical message, led him to achieve great success.”
In his article “King’s Transition from the Struggle for Black Political Rights to Economic Rights for All to Death by Hatred, 1955-1968,” Emmanuel Konde didn’t even bother to use – not even once – the word “nonviolence” in describing King’s political “transition.” Given the span of Konde’s analysis, this omission is both remarkable and troubling – and even more so given Konde’s focus on King’s transition to economic rights, for King’s final project – the Poor People’s Campaign – was one he envisioned in terms of “militant nonviolence.” As King explained in “Showdown for Nonviolence” (published twelve days after his assassination), “We need to put pressure on Congress to get things done. We will do this with First Amendment activity. If Congress is unresponsive, we’ll have to escalate in order to keep the issue [of economic inequality] alive and before it. This action may take on disruptive dimensions, but not violent in the sense of destroying life or property: it will be militant nonviolence.”
Konde is not alone in omitting nonviolence from consideration of King’s politics. The word is also conspicuously absent from Geoff Gilbert’s “MLK’s radical vision got distorted,” an article in which Gilbert examines, among other things, how King’s “real legacy on militarism & inequality,” as expressed in “Beyond Vietnam,” has been recaptured by current activists (the protests that Gilbert examines in this article were, ironically enough, nonviolent protests).
One unschooled in King’s work could walk away from these texts and others like it with the distinct impression that nonviolence was no longer important to King and that, prior to his assassination, he may very well have been on the cusp of taking up the call for armed revolutionary struggle.
And yet, not only did King begin to advocate more forcefully for militant nonviolence, which he viewed as both a “positive constructive force” by which the “rage of the ghetto” could be “transmuted” and as an effective means to curb the feverish preparations “for repression” by the “police, national guard and other armed bodies”; but in “Beyond Vietnam” specifically King framed and criticized the war in terms of nonviolence. In fact, in this “most radical” speech he distilled the issues of militarism, racism, and materialism to a question of love.
Identifying the “giant triplets” as symptoms of a “deeper malady within the American spirit,” King argued that the nation needed to heal itself by reclaiming its “revolutionary spirit” and declaring “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” But in order to do so the American people, he asserted, would have to undergo “a genuine revolution of values,” that is, to develop “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole” and thus answer the “call for a world-wide fellowship” that “lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation” – a call that is, “in reality” (King argued), “a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”
So why is there all of this whitewashing of King’s commitment to nonviolence and love by some on the left?
It’s fair to say, I think, that conservatives’, government officials’ and other elites’ appropriation of King’s work and image go far to explain why some on the left have erased King’s nonviolence and love. These, after all, are often what conservatives and other elites tend to champion about King’s legacy – though what they offer is empty of anything resembling King’s politics of resistance and ultimately constitutes the kind of “emotional bosh” that King rejected outright. Moreover, the love and nonviolence that conservatives offer are often nothing less than barely disguised expressions of hostility toward African Americans and others.
This hostility was expressed, for example, by talk show host Glen Beck’s call last year for a March on Washington – the 52nd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – to protest, under the banner “ALL LIVES MATTER,” “discrimination” against Christians who reject gay marriage (Beck specifically invoked King’s “name to announce” his march and campaign). Not only did Beck attempt to harness the nonviolent 1963 MOW and King’s moral stature to his anti-gay agenda, but he did so by specifically targeting and belittling the organizing that had been taking place – under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter – against police killings of unarmed African American children, women and men. “ALL LIVES MATTER,” as many have pointed out, signifies a refusal to hear and to redress African Americans’ calls for justice and a radical change in how policing is conducted in this country.
Considering efforts such as Beck’s, reclaiming King from conservative elite appropriation is, I think, an important cultural and political project.
But the conservative game doesn’t explain entirely what many on the left have been doing with King’s work. After all, it’s not as if the latter have, in the face of the conservative onslaught, defended King’s nonviolence and love or exposed the ways that conservatives actually reframe nonviolence in terms that make it compatible with state power and political quietism. If anything, some on the left have, as part of their reclamation project, conceded by omission nonviolence and love to conservative elites.
What I think is driving this whitewashing of King’s commitment – at least in part – is the rather longstanding and yet oft-unspoken assumption among some on the left about what does and does not constitute “radical” politics. As demonstrated above, some assume, in particular, that radical politics cannot possibly include nonviolence; that nonviolence and love are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of critique that King offered; that both nonviolence and love signify, in fact, the absence of radical politics. Indeed, for too many on the left, radicalism is “necessarily bound up with violence” (to borrow from Yale Professor Chris Lebron’s “Time for a New Black Radicalism”).
Viewed in this light, King’s critique of the giant triplets and the war necessarily indicated that he was beginning to abandon nonviolence and love, since one cannot be both radical and nonviolent at the same time. It is therefore entirely in order to excise King’s nonviolence from his critique of the war, materialism, racism, and militarism as well as to align King, even if subtly, with an idea of radicalism he believed was neither revolutionary nor rational.
King, however, challenged outright such a skewed idea of radicalism. Indeed, by marrying in “Beyond Vietnam” his critique of the giant triplets to his philosophy of nonviolence and love, King explicitly defined love itself as the ultimate form of radicalism and as the means by which to reconstruct our society from the bottom-up. “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued” the “self-defeating path of hate,” King lamented in his call for a “genuine revolution of values.” But “love,” he proclaimed (quoting Arnold Toynbee), “‘is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’”
For King, what made love especially radical was not only that it was the absolute antithesis of the status quo of violence – i.e., militarism, materialism, racism and, of course, the Vietnam War itself; but that it was also, in his view, the means by which we could embrace “sonship and brotherhood” as our “vocation” and thus move “beyond the calling of race or nation or creed” – beyond, that is, the narrow allegiances defined by our political and social identities.
This idea of moving “beyond” such identities (King deployed the word “beyond” several times when he talked about these) and of being “bound” together through and on the basis of love is – more than anything else, I believe – what has compelled some on the left to cleanse King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. King’s construction of both in his “most radical speech” and elsewhere was a clear rejection of what many clearly embrace: a politics grounded in and driven by the reification and reproduction of political and social identities. King implied that not only was such a politics completely inadequate to the task of ending the war in Vietnam; but it was also, he inferred, not a viable basis for radically transforming our society since it embraced the very divisions and ideas of separateness upon which the war, as well as the giant triplets, absolutely depended. For King, this politics of identity put us all on the wrong side of “the world revolution” against the “old systems of exploitation and oppression.” To get on the “right side,” we would have to undergo a “positive revolution of values,” a revolution through which we would come to see ourselves as “bound by allegiances and loyalties” much “broader and deeper” than those prescribed by our social and political identities.
“Beyond Vietnam,” then, is a speech that stands against the kind of identitarian politics that many on the left champion and that ultimately underlie their efforts to “reclaim” King. It was a speech through which he called for the creation of a different form of self – or, rather, called for our embrace of self as love and thus as opposition to, at the level of everyday life, our violent society – which is to say, really, that “Beyond Vietnam” is truly a call to nonviolence, to be the full expression of it and, in the process, to be a force that will reconstruct radically our society into one grounded in and expressive of peace and “brotherhood.”
This is not to argue, as many conservatives would have it, that King advocated or laid claim to some kind of transcendence over race, class, and the like, nor is it to claim that he never embraced these identities. “We must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful” King declared, for example, in “Where Do We Go From Here.” Reflecting the sexist black power discourse of his day, he declared as well that to “offset…cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood.”
Yet, King did insist that we are, fundamentally, spirit or love – “that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life,” the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” and which has been grasped by “Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist” belief systems. Thus, even as our lives are undeniably materially and politically shaped by structures that reinforce and perpetuate race, class, nation, and other political/social identities and divisions – necessitating, as King made clear throughout his life, that we organize to dismantle the structural inequalities that these produce and the violence they enact – we are not bound by them. In fact, not only can we move “beyond” them; we must do so, King suggested, for it is our failure to recognize that we are “interrelated,” i.e., connected in spirit and in love (or, as King put it, that we are all “sons of God”), that has set us on a path to “co-annihilation.”
We are still on that path, as our open-ended “war on terror,” our race-to-the-bottom neoliberal economic policies, and the nihilism of our refusal to address climate change all make abundantly clear. In this context, King’s message of love is surely a radical one, a message that asks us to reconstruct completely our society – beginning with ourselves. And it is the King who spoke of love and nonviolence as the path to peaceful coexistence – that radical, unwashed King, whom we must “reclaim” so that we might think more deeply and critically about what is required of us, what kind of revolution of values we must undergo or redefinition of self we must undertake, in order to make a more just and peaceful world. But that reclamation project ultimately requires us to take a hard look at our politics of identity and ask whether or not they are placing us firmly on the wrong side of history.
All sources for this article can be found in the original post.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968 – a speech in which he urged support for the labor strike of Memphis, Tennessee’s African American sanitation workers – he spoke candidly about having received death threats prior to his arrival in Memphis. Because of the threats, King told his audience, the plane upon which he arrived had to be (according to the pilot) “‘protected and guarded all night,’” and the bags of the other passengers on his plane subjected to heightened security checks.
“I got into Memphis,” King continued,
“And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
What was significant about this speech, and this moment, was not – as many have speculated –that King had some kind of sixth sense about his impending assassination. Instead, what made this moment important was that King modeled the capacity we all have to transform into a source of power our physical vulnerability to others’ violence; to claim as “our” brothers and sisters those who want to harm us and, in the process, to recognize their need for healing; and, to let go of our attachment to “longevity” – indeed, to our fear of death – precisely because these attachments keep us from seeing, and erecting, our vision of a better society.
King was not special. He was just a man, one who decided that he would not let his vulnerability distort his vision, turn him against others, and compromise his highest ideals and deeply held beliefs. He died for them, yes. But he also lived for them.
The “current threat of terrorism,” wrote Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “is a real one and the fear which people feel is also real.” Consequently, “if progressive activist-thinkers gloss over this reality they will not be able to reach a wider public base.” The “difficulty,” Fernades continued, “is to provide a courageous alternative at precisely the point where individuals feel their own personal safety is at risk, for it is usually at this point of perceived vulnerability that we are most willing to put up our fences, lash out at others and forsake our deepest ideals.” Indeed, the “question of security poses the deepest possible spiritual challenge to individuals, communities and nations – for it is an area which has created the most distortion around the meaning of self-preservation. From a spiritual perspective, any act that causes harm to another can never ultimately be an act of self-preservation.”
King’s demonstration – “a spiritualized practice of nonviolence,” to use Fernandes’ words – is the stuff from which we can create “a courageous alternative,” one that will allow us to attend with an open heart to our countrymen and women’s (and our) growing hysteria, fear, and utter sense of vulnerability concerning both the emergence of ISIS and the continued threats of “terrorism,” as well as the warmongering and hate that are feeding all of it. Instead of submitting to vulnerability and fear, and consequently closing ranks, we could use both to engage and resist ISIS as well as others who do terrorism (and that includes our countrymen and women) in ways that claim them, absolutely, as “our” sick brothers and sisters in need of healing. We dare to see ourselves in them, in fact – to pursue policies rendered unthinkable by our belief that a Self/Other view of the world is the only realistic vision we can have for humankind. By daring to step into this kind of vulnerability, we might very well break the cycle of carnage and counter-carnage that passes as both self-preservation and foreign policy.
And I say this conceding that, by now, the men and women whom we call “terrorists” – and certainly ISIS – are probably beyond our reach. To use the words of South African theologian Allen Aubrey Boesak, “I am painfully aware that deeply complex situations arise where nonviolent intervention comes too late, where the world, for various reasons, has hesitated too long, has erred fatally on the side of greed, neglect, or indifference, has invested too vastly and for too long in the entrenchment of tyrants of all kinds.”
However, it is not too late to examine ourselves and to look at the question of terrorism – foreign and domestic – in terms of our having failed to choose nonviolence in the first instance (by, for example, refusing to underwrite tyrants, to sacrifice the needs of the many for the benefit of the few, to hoard resources, to live with great indifference in the midst of profound poverty and despair). It is not too late to see self-preservation as inextricably bound to the well-being of others, or to see in the violence around us the harm we have caused.
And it is certainly not too late to reject our politicians’ invitation to retributive justice and joyful, sacred violence.
But all of that self-examination requires that we ultimately let go of our attachment to the longevity of this empire, does it not? We must look at death – the death of our bodies, the death of our idea of self, the death of nation, the death of anything and everything that makes it impossible for us to speak in terms of I and I – and fearlessly say, as did King, that we are “not concerned about that now.” For the place we want to get to – peace – is the place we must bring into being with a willingness to pay the price if we must, so that we can one day sit and break bread with all of our sisters and brothers – all of them, without exception.
For Joanie, my mother (d. 11/24/2012)
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“Could nonviolence have stopped Hitler?” was a question President Obama asked when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and it is a question many often ask as a retort to those of us who advocate for nonviolence as a means to confront power and injustice. Like Obama, not only do the men and women who ask the question already assume that a “non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” as Obama stated; they also already believe that nonviolent resistance would have enabled Hitler ultimately to rule the world. Nonviolence is simply no match for those who are committed to violence and tyranny.
Well, that’s probably true. But “putting nonviolence on trial in the manner of Obama [and others] is problematic because the question,” as Michael Allen Fox argued in Understanding Peace, “is open to more than one interpretation. If it is taken to mean (as Obama obviously intended): ‘Could forms of nonviolent resistance have defeated the juggernaut in battle or in the midst of its rolling over weaker countries?’ then the incontestable answer would seem to be: ‘No, certainly not.’
But if instead “the question being asked is rephrased in this way: ‘could Hitler’s rise to power have been thwarted by nonviolent campaigns?’ then the answer is not so apparent; the only thing we do know is that this tactic wasn’t tried in any ongoing, large-scale manner.” In Fox’s view, the fact that nonviolence “wasn’t tried in any ongoing, large-scale manner” is “an instance of a bigger issue: Nonviolence cannot be written off as an inadequate or failed response to particular human problems if it has not been tried as a means to solving them.”
Which brings me to Donald Trump and his competitors for the Republican nomination, all of whom have been clamoring to out-do each other on providing Nazi-like solutions to the terrible suffering of the Syrian people and to the threat of ISIS. Trump wants to require all Muslims (who’s next??) to register in a national database and/or make them carry special identification designating their religious beliefs – much like the stars and triangles the Nazis required of Jews and gays (Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to give refuge only to Christian Syrians (shades of “whites only”?) – a policy position that suggests how willing they are to leave Syrian Muslims, those of other faiths, and secularists all subject to continued violence, hunger, despair, and death).
Trump’s support among potential Republican voters has surged.
We can watch these developments from the sidelines and write them off as election year antics. And if Trump or any of his colleagues capture the Oval Office, we can take comfort, I guess, in the fact that the people have spoken and that 2020 presents another opportunity to change course.
Or we can recognize that this is a moment for us to confront and thwart, through militant nonviolence, the rise of those who have made abundantly clear that they disdain not only the constitution and our democracy, but also humanity itself.
Hitler was elected, after all.
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.