Tuesday, 22 April 2014 06:39
Behind a chain link fence on 35th Ave, the man who gardens every day for other people grows his own roses, gathered around a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Off 98th Ave, backyard barbeques are legendary, as is the young cousin who always wins the battles of wits and words that break out after the hot links are finished. The elders on 8th Street trace smooth Tai-Chi flows into the crisp dawn air, pivoting on one heel to turn towards the sunrise. These are the flatlands of Oakland. These are the places we call home and they are now at great risk.
In the space of only a couple of years, the Oakland flatlands went from being the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, losing tens of thousands of long-time Black and Latino residents welcoming a wave of corporate investment that will not only fill the gap left by those who were pushed out, but reshape working class neighborhoods in Oakland, and transform the city as a whole.
Corporate investors are ahead of the game. They have descended on Oakland and snatched up a shocking 42% of homes lost to foreclosure, 93% of which are in the flatlands . And finance capital is creating the conditions for a growing bubble in the housing market — rent securitization, a way for investors to trade on rents the way they did on mortgages . They will profit from the new renters created by the foreclosure crisis, and from an entire new class of people coming into redeveloped neighborhoods, attracted by highly paid tech jobs in the region.
Proclaiming that "a rising tide lifts all boats" even city officials who identify as progressive have embraced and facilitated this ruthless brand of corporate investment, anxious to bring revenue in, without enough consideration of the impacts those investments will have on neighborhoods vulnerable to the dynamics of gentrification.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan recently unveiled a new project — 10,000 new units of housing aimed explicitly at housing tech workers priced out of San Francisco. This is Oakland's second "10k Plan". Mayor Jerry Brown (1999-2007) implemented the first in the early 2000s. It ushered in the first wave of widely criticized gentrification in Oakland, and reshaped the area spanning Old Oakland, Chinatown, and downtown, that developers renamed "Uptown."
The second 10k plan stretches into adjacent areas like North Oakland, and the light industrial zone between downtown and East Oakland. The plan's vague promise of "up to 25% affordable units" is inadequate to address the urgent and overdue needs of the neighborhoods that are being targeted for this development.
In North Oakland, for example, 40% of residents are under the poverty line. New housing at 29th and Telegraph should be built for those working class residents. We need to have stronger protections to keep the housing they rent affordable and in livable condition. It somehow seems beyond the limits of local officials' political imagination to prioritize housing and development for people who built this city and need it the most. Or perhaps is it just easier to let the problem of poverty, and its survivors, get pushed out to underserved working class suburbs, where they become someone else's problem.
Causa Justa :: Just Cause member Mustafa Solomon has lived with his daughter near Market St. in North Oakland for 17 years. "We like living in Oakland," he says. "I'm a photographer and it's close to the cultural scene that I work with. I have lived in the same neighborhood all these years. It's where I'm the most comfortable." He and his daughter were displaced after an accidental fire in their kitchen. They lacked a smoke detector, which is a landlord's legal responsibility to provide. The landlord took advantage of the situation to evict them. Without relocation assistance, Mustafa lived in his car for a week while coming up with the resources to move him and his daughter to a motel in Vallejo for 6 months while the unit was being repaired. Now that he's back in the unit, the landlord is trying to pass through the cost of repairs by raising his rent.
As this new wave of investment comes into Oakland, situations like Mustafa's are commonplace. Thousands of other African American tenants face similar challenges, as do immigrants, senior citizens, disabled people, queer people, and other tenants vulnerable to discrimination and harassment.
Causa Justa's tenant rights clinics have recently seen a sudden and significant increase in these types of cases. While investment money floods in to build luxury lofts, what's left of the affordable housing stock is in deplorable condition, and tenants lack the legal tools, or political power to defend themselves against the pressure of displacement. Tenants who pay more affordable rent due to long-term tenancies are finding themselves unable to get basic repairs, are being harassed and discriminated against, and living in unhealthy conditions.
Without legal protections, tenants cannot compete with the profit motive that entices landlords to push them out. Refusing repairs and harassing a tenant is an easy way to do so without having to follow any legal process. Building new housing doesn't address the problem of habitability that working class tenants face, and it often accelerates their displacement. More affluent people, many of them single, young white tech workers, quickly take up the space that is left when people like Mustafa are pushed out without so much as a legal eviction notice.
Gentrification – the profit-driven race and class remake of urban working class communities of color that have suffered from a history of divestment and abandonment – is evident all over urban centers in the US, where long-time communities are being pushed out of their homes. Can Oakland stand up and be a bold model of something different?
At the grassroots, people are ready. Resilient in the face of crisis, Mustafa is not about to give up, despite the odds stacked against him. "I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and if we keep moving out of Oakland, that means they win. Landlords have resources to get lawyers and work the system. We need some laws to protect tenants."
Tenants at the Hillside Apartments in East Oakland for instance, have organized to collectively demand remediation of the infestation of mold in their building and reclaim their right to healthy housing. Dansheeka was one of the first to stand up in her rent controlled building, moved to take action after her daughter was hospitalized for respiratory problems caused by the mold. As if it wasn't hard enough to deal with illness, mold, and a negligent landlord, Dansheeka's struggle is compounded by the lack of investment in city infrastructure to oversee and maintain rental housing in livable condition. Our city needs to prioritize direct investment into the housing that people who live here already have.
Without aggressive action on behalf of existing residents, gentrification will destroy the rich cultural fabric that Oakland, the most diverse city in the country, has always been so proud of.
The impact on Oakland's African American community is already evident, as documented by the Alameda County Public Health Department and reported by Wendy Georges at Oakland City Council in March of 2014: "Gentrifying neighborhoods have resulted in a substantial displacement of African American households in Oakland, including a loss of Black home ownership." She spoke the number of African Americans in Oakland decreasing by nearly half between 1990-2011, and how home ownership dropped from 50% to 25% and the decline of this population by 17 percentage points – from 43% to 26% — "the largest drop of any population group." She added, "The impact has clearly been disproportionate and favorable to people at the higher end of socio-economic income scale at the expense of people at the lower end of that scale."
The African American community is clearly the canary in the coalmine. A warning of what's to come for all of Oakland's working class communities if we don't change our approach to development.
Rather than step up to the challenge of addressing racialized poverty and investing in Oakland's longtime African American communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, plans to streamline corporate development simply push people out. Out of the town, out of their homes and diverse cultural communities, and away from the network of community-based infrastructure through which they exercise progressive political power.
What we have in the Bay area housing market is not a simple problem of supply and demand; it's a problem of the lack of corporate and political accountability. We need aggressive, progressive taxation, regulation, and accountability in the housing market and from our city government. We need city officials and decision makers who will step up to the challenge of defending long term residents from gentrification, and partnering to support those residents in building a long-term vision and strategy for healthy, stable communities.
Oakland is now majority renters. That post-foreclosure-crisis reality needs to be reflected in the policies and approach the city takes to housing. We need strong regulations in the rental housing market.
Causa Justa :: Just Cause is proud to have co-created the Tenant Justice Campaign, a broad-based effort to improve laws regulating tenancies and rental housing. Earlier this month we were successful in forcing the Oakland City Council to strengthen rental laws by limiting the ways landlords can raise the rent, forcing them to register every rent increase with the city, and limiting total rent increases to no more than 10% a year, ever, for any reason . This is the first right tenants have gained in Oakland since 2002, the year our organization was founded here, through a broad community-based campaign to implement a Just Cause ordinance limiting evictions.
We will be back at the City Council to finalize and strengthen this victory against rent increases. And we are building towards a ballot initiative in November 2014, asking Oaklanders to support an ordinance creating legal precedent to protect tenants, immigrants, seniors, queer people, and families with children from being evicted and displaced by landlord harassment, including the neglect of basic repairs and maintenance.
These policy reforms are crucial to addressing the crisis of gentrification in the lives of everyday people. Both by providing legal handles for people to fight for their homes, and by building the political protagonism of directly impacted people. That said, these policy changes are just one aspect of the long-term transformative change we need. The difference between a policy on paper, and one that Mustafa or Dansheeka can count on to live in a healthy home, is organizing, and the collective power we build when we come together to defend our neighborhoods and homes.
As longtime West Oaklander, Causa Justa :: Just Cause member, retired bookseller, and Black grandfather Kokovul says "It's bigger than evictions. It's alienation. We've been convinced by capital that we are individuals, that we are consumers, that there is no collective future."
The struggle for healthy, stable housing shouldn't be an individual fight — a source of anxiety that jolts Dansheeka awake in the middle of the night and moves Mustafa to tears as he contemplates his future. In order to be successful the struggle must address the collective needs of the working class African American community they are both leaders in, and build the sense of community that Oakland as a whole is so proud of.
An individual approach to the gentrification crisis will not work. It will only reinforce our isolation, turning us from families and communities into consumers of housing, convinced that gentrification is natural, displacement is inevitable, and the best we can each do is try to save our own skin.
For the sake of our city, for the sake of the communities we thrive in, the struggle for stable, habitable homes needs to be a collective one; a people-powered process that shows us our power as creators of community instead of as consumers; a process that city officials accompany us in as allies of the people they represent; a process that builds grassroots institutions through which we build long-term progressive political power and grow in community with each other in the city we call home.
Join us April 26 at Met West High School for a people's forum to build the struggle for the flatlands.
Wednesday, 19 February 2014 19:51
This essay is published in the book "Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral," published by CODESRIA, Senegal, available in the US at Powell's Independent Bookstore Online.
Join the Bay Area Book Launch event featuring book contributor Walter Turner, host of KPFA's "Africa Today," and María Poblet, on 2/21 at 6pm at Oakland's Eastside Arts Alliance. Full event information »
As a Left community organizer in the United States, working with oppressed and exploited people in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, I have benefitted greatly from Amílcar Cabral's work and thought. I am part of a broader growing political tendency that is building a working class base for the Left in urban centers inside the United States, innovating with organizing fights for housing and transportation, immigrant's rights, and women's rights, building race-conscious class unity, particularly between oppressed communities of color who are pitted against each other at the bottom of the economy in the US, and have a strong basis for solidarity with working class and poor people throughout the world.
Like a lot of radical political organizing in the 21st century, our tendency, in part, comes out of critiques of the 20th century socialist models. From rejecting the authoritarianism of Stalin, to broadening the concept of the revolutionary subject to include a broader set of marginalized groups not limited to the industrial working class, to rejecting race-blind class reductionism, to lifting up the liberatory aspects of cultural traditions among oppressed people.
Amilcar Cabral's work has been profoundly influential to the development of this political tendency, among many others around the world. His theory provides a way to engage with the shortfalls of 20th century models of radical change that do not throw the class struggle baby out with the Soviet bathwater. Cabral is a luminary among the broader set of Third World Marxists who, from Nicaragua to Kenya, led successful national liberation movements. He formed and led the PAIGC, and was instrumental in strategizing the successful overthrew of Portuguese colonialism, not only in his home of Cape Verde & Guinea Bissau, but also throughout the continent of Africa. He was core to the development of a broader Pan-Africanist tendency, which built strong links to liberation movements in Asia and Latin America, and had inspiring, global impact.
Even in the United States, the belly of the beast, in such a markedly different time, place and set of conditions than the ones Cabral operated in, we have a lot to learn from his work. He grappled with theoretical questions that have parallels to the ones we face today. And, he reached a level of depth and sophistication regarding movement strategy that we have yet to achieve in the 21st century.
Today's emerging movements in the west hold Democracy to be a core value. They have have emphasized collective decision-making as an attempt to increase engagement, inclusion, and community control. This approach, heavily influenced by Anarchism and Zapatísmo, attempts to remedy problems attributed to top-down approaches by Left political parties of the 20th century. The vast majority of the people involved in those movements have little knowledge of Cabral's insights on the question of what he called "Revolutionary Democracy."
Cabral's work presents a different approach, in a very different context, with some of the same values. His advice to militants in his organization reflected a commitment to revolutionary democracy: 'Do not be afraid of the people and persuade the people to take part in all the decisions which concern them – this is the basic condition of revolutionary democracy, which little by little we must achieve in accordance with the development of our struggle and our life.' (1) He addresses this question in a dialectical way, acknowledging what our movements have been beginning to understand: that oppression and exploitation rob people of the capacity to self-govern, both structurally and psychologically, and that building that capacity is a core task within the revolutionary struggle, and not after. This very same assessment is built into radical community organizing that seeks to develop working class leaders who can advance the social justice movement as a whole. Structures of support, capacity-building, and decision making that we have built in the community organizing sector prioritize people directly impacted by the problems of capitalism, and are attempts to build that kind of revolutionary democracy within our progressive movements.
Cabral called for both collective and individual leadership, and theorized the role of individual leadership as part of a collective whole. He said 'The leader must be the faithful interpreter of the will and the aspirations of the revolutionary majority and not the lord of power'. (2) This approach affirms the role of leaders in and developing the vision emerging from the people, while not putting leaders on a pedestal of unchecked power. To that end he called on militants to 'Tell no lies, claim no easy victories,' and encouraged a practice of profound humility, honest evaluation, and integrity throughout his organization.
He also theorized collective leadership:
To lead collectively, in a group, is to study questions jointly, to find their best solution, and to take decisions jointly, it is to benefit from experience and intelligence of each and all so as to lead, order and command better. In collective leadership, each person in the leadership must have his own clearly defined duties and is responsible for the carrying out of decisions taken by the group in regard to his duties... But to lead collectively is not and cannot be, as some suppose, to give to all and everyone the right of uncontrolled views and initiatives, to create anarchy (lack of government), disorder, contradiction between leaders, empty arguments, a passion for meetings without results. Still less is it to give vent to incompetence, ignorance, intellectual foolhardiness...In the framework of the collective leadership, we must respect the opinion of more experienced comrades who for their part must help the others with less experience to learn and to improve their work. In the framework of the collective leadership there is always one or other comrade who has a higher standing as party leader and who for this reason has more individual responsibility...We must allow prestige to these comrades, help them to have constantly higher standing, but not allow them to monopolise (take over) the work and responsibility of the group. We must, on the other hand, struggle against the spirit of slackness, and disinterest, the fear of responsibilities, the tendency to agree with everything, to obey blindly without thinking. (3)
The PAIGC was so committed to being an instrument of the people, that, in 1973, after more than a decade of armed struggle, when they finally defeated Portugal militarily, they did not storm the palace of power. Rather, they returned to the people, conducting a vote of confidence among the population, affirming their approval through a popular vote before officially taking up governance. This referendum is a powerful example of revolutionary democracy.
What would today's movements look like if we had highly effective, collectively controlled instruments of political struggle? What would organizations look like if we held individuals to high standards of integrity, provided structured developmental support, and consciously built our capacities towards governance?
Re-imagining political power is a central challenge to today's 21st century generation of freedom fighters. I have been part of experiments in structure that sought to uphold the value of collective leadership, from flat collectives to ultra-democratic centralism, to developmental hierarchies that focused on in-depth training and mentorship for emerging leaders. These approaches, none of them perfect, have re-enforced the core lessons that Cabral offers: the need for clarity on the outcomes you seek, the necessity for alignment and accountability, and the value of collective leadership among people who share a political goal.
Class Analysis & Class Consciousness
Cabral argued that no revolution could be truly successful without leadership from the working and peasant classes whose work produced the wealth of the country and of it's colonizers, and whose strategic position was powerful enough to turn the tables on economic injustice. And that a revolutionary vision of liberation would not be satisfied by simply replacing Portuguese political and economic control, putting the national bourgeoisie at the top of the exploitative structure created by colonialism.
Gaining political representation or even political control would not be sufficient to truly change the economic structure that colonialism put in place. Neither would it be possible or ideal to return to the way indigenous societies were organized before colonialism. So, Cabral argued, the task of revolutionaries was to make possible the development of national productive forces (the capacity of Cape Verde & Guinea Bissau to sustain an economy independent of Portugal), while laying the ideological foundations and movement infrastructure to fight against exploitation that would emerge under the rule of the national bourgeoisie.
This sophisticated strategy came from a deep conviction in the fundamental right of his people to live free of exploitation of any kind. He described the national liberation movement in this way: 'We are fighting so that...our peoples may never more be exploited by imperialists not only by people with white skin, because we do not confuse exploitation or exploiters with the colour of men's skins; we do not want any exploitation in our countries, not even by black people.' (4)
Today's reality is one where the exploiting class is no longer made up only of European colonial rulers. There are plenty of political and corporate leaders from oppressed nationalities, some of whom use their oppressed identity as an excuse to not only exploit others, but to celebrate that exploitation as if it were a hallmark of progress.
The question of class exploitation was core to Cabral's strategy, and is just as important for freedom fighters today. Without organizing working class people from oppressed nationalities, our movements lack the strategic base of power that can challenge capitalism's core. Without organizing working class and peasant communities, our movements can easily remain focused on social issues without tackling the underlying economic structure of capitalism. That is why organizing working class people is so important to building a successful movement towards economic democracy.
He also detailed the role of privileged layers of society in the revolutionary project. The fact that the national petty-bourgeoisie live the contrast between the world of the colonizer and the world of the colonized, he said, could be a catalyst for revolutionary consciousness. In fact, he theorized, these layers of society who were privileged in some ways but still not owners of the means of production were likely to see the need for national liberation sooner, given their role in society and in the economy:
The colonial situation, which does not permit the development of a native pseudo-bourgeoisie and in which the popular masses do not generally reach the necessary level of political consciousness before the advent of the phenomenon of national liberation, offers the petty bourgeoisie the historical opportunity of leading the struggle against foreign domination, since by nature of its objective and subjective position (higher standard of living than that of the masses, more frequent contact with the agents of colonialism, and hence more chances of being humiliated, higher level of education and political awareness, etc.) it is the stratum which most rapidly becomes aware of the need to free itself from foreign domination. This historical responsibility is assumed by the sector of the petty bourgeoisie which, in the colonial context, can be called revolutionary, while other sectors retain the doubts characteristic of these classes or ally themselves to colonialism so as to defend, albeit illusorily, their social situation. (5)
Organizers in the 21st century can learn from this type of detailed assessment based on the time, place and conditions, and should be asking ourselves these same questions. What is the most strategic role for privileged layers of society in social movements today?
The economic crisis has pushed more and more racially privileged and self-identified middle class people into precariousness and even poverty. Foreclosures, unemployment, loss of pensions, and lack of basic resources like healthcare are no longer problems unique to the self-identified working classes. While it is true that these privileged sectors have not felt the brunt of the burden of the failures of neo-liberalism, denying their experiences, or writing them off as irrelevant to the movement is a self-marginalizing mistake. Unless we can leverage this opportunity to provide new entry points into the movement, and engage the falling "middle class" in the project of fighting for economic justice for the working class as a whole, our movement will not be able to grow to the scale we need to win. Nor will we be able to capture the imagination of society as a whole.
How to best engage privileged sectors is a complicated question. Just as capitalism has robbed oppressed and exploited people of leadership capacities, it has ingrained privileged people with a complex of superiority that undercuts our collective capacity for revolutionary democracy. A more nuanced understanding that recognizes that we all have experiences of privilege and oppression allows us to build a more intersectional analysis. Just as Cabral theorized the unique potential of a sector of the petty-bourgeoisie, while positioning the working class as the motive force of change, our movement should also get clear on the role of particular sectors of the falling "middle class," in a broad multi-racial, multi-class, multi-gender movement led by working class people.
Class suicide and Cross-class movement building
This type of cross-class movement building requires a particular framework. Freedom fighters from privileged backgrounds, who Cabral identified as an important force within the broader front against imperialism, would need to gain a new kind of consciousness and develop a core sense of revolutionary ethics if they were to make real contributions to the movement.
He called for a profound transformation: 'in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong. This alternative — to betray the revolution or to commit suicide as a class — constitutes the dilemma of the petty bourgeoisie in the general framework of the national liberation struggle.'
Class suicide is an amazing concept: a vision of profound transformation and alignment with the revolutionary project, on a collective level that breaks open the next stage of development for the movement.
This is particularly relevant in the face of the ongoing crisis in the capitalist economy and in the world's ecology, as more and more people are downwardly mobile or experiencing ecological collapse and are mobilized to join emerging movements. Not only is there an opportunity for class-consciousness as wealth becomes more and more polarized, there is also an opportunity for privileged sectors of society to develop the moral consciousness that can help create the conditions for the development of 21st century liberation movements.
Theory, according to Cabral, was a crucial weapon in the struggle. He agitated for militants to engage in intellectual work, saying 'The ideological deficiency, not to say the total lack of ideology, within the national liberation movements - which is basically due to ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform - constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all.' (6)
He challenged militants to engage critically, but also advised, 'Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head', (7) and warned them: 'We are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults at it.' (8) He challenged freedom fighters to train themselves ideologically, and to simultaneously ground their efforts in the aspirations of every day people: 'Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone's head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. . .' (9)
This dialectical approach that intertwined theory and practice made Amílcar Cabral one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century. Even though his theories are deeply rooted in the movement for national independence in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau decades ago, they have a much broader reach and meaning. From the groundbreaking concept of class suicide, to the imagination and application of revolutionary democracy, Cabral's contributions have the potential to support a successful re-emergence of social movements in the 21st century.
1. Cabral, A. "General Watchwords" speech to PAIGC militants, from Unity and Struggle, 1979
4. Cabral, A., African Communist, No. 53, second quarter 1973
5. Cabral, A. "The Weapon of Theory" Address delivered to the First Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in Havana. January 1966
7. Cabral, A. "General Watchwords" speech to PAIGC militants, from Unity and Struggle, 1979
9.Cabral, A. Semin rio de quadros, Conakry, 1969
Tuesday, 04 February 2014 07:14
San Francisco’s gentrification has reached a ridiculous new extreme, making it the most expensive city in the country,[i] outstripping even Manhattan, the home of Wall Street and its corporate tycoons.
The affordability crisis is so extreme that many of those who rode into the Mission District on the first wave of gentrification, during the dotcom boom in the 90s, are now crying foul. Even they can’t afford the 2-bedroom apartment on Valencia Street renting for $11,500/month.[ii] They find themselves priced out of their lofts and community networks, by a whole new wave of highly paid tech workers who ride in on the Google bus every evening, driving rents and home prices to dizzying new heights.
If a well-paid tech worker can’t stay in the Mission, what are the prospects for someone like Jessica, a student whose mother works as a janitor? Born living at 24th and Harrison, she came to Causa Justa :: Just Cause to find our what her family could do to keep their home. They battled valiantly, but were ultimately pushed out of their home of 23 years by an investor who forced them to accept a buy out, by threatening to Ellis Act the entire 9-unit building. The Ellis Act, passed by the real estate lobby in 1986 allows landlords to remove rent-controlled units from the rental market, and turn them into condominiums for sale. It’s a real estate speculator’s dream, and a long-term tenant’s nightmare. Particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods, where real estate prices spike and there’s a profit motive to kick out long-term tenants.[iii]
Jessica’s working class Latino family is deeply committed to staying in San Francisco. The city is more than just their home. It’s home to their extended family of aunties, godfathers, cousins and in-laws. It’s where they have worked in service-sector jobs since the 80s, when so many Central American immigrants arrived to the Sanctuary City[iv], infusing local politics with internationalist ethics. It’s the web of community networks, public schools, and neighorhood-based social services that supports kids as they grow up, and adults as they become elders. It’s that way-beyond-nuclear type of family we call “community.”
Community is that palpable sense of connectedness you feel at the Palestinian-owned corner store on Mission Street. At the Spanish-only Thai grocer on 16th street, where decades-long neighbors run into each, buying freshly fried plantain chips made by a Honduran neighbor, hard-to-find Vietnamese hot sauce, or prickly delicious Rambutan fruit, while catchy Arab pop and Northern Mexican Rancheras blare onto the street. Community is the lunch counter that has served southern Barbeque to SRO residents ever since the days that same building was a tenement, housing African-American migrants who came here from the South to build the naval shipyard in Hunter’s Point. Their descendants are now scattered as far as Antioch and Sacramento, over-represented in homeless shelters, absent from the streets of the Fillmore, SF’s former center of Black culture, now decorated with painfully ironic “Jazz Legacy” street signs for tourists.[v] Community is the traditional Mexican Tres Leches cake the inter-racial queer couple buys at the Chinese bakery every year, wishing a transgender partner “Happy Birthday” to celebrate their gender transition.
Community is the social fabric made up of each of these inter-twined threads. It’s not something you can put a price on. But there is a price - a huge price.
In order to stay in San Francisco, Jessica’s family now pays 40% more for their housing. Did janitors' wages go up 40% this year? Did the cost of living decrease 40%? Did mom-and-pop stores that serve families like Jessica’s get a 40% decrease in skyrocketing commercial rents, so they could lower prices? Not a chance. Instead, Jessica’s family makes it work the way thousands do, by living in more crowded, less habitable conditions, cutting costs on everything from healthcare, to transportation, to food.
For the thousands of families like Jessica’s, the battle to expand tenant rights is more important than ever. Yes, building affordable housing is important. But, by itself, it is just not enough. Non-profit developers struggle to make ends meet and keep units off the market, and, ironically, they need to raise money from the very same corporate interests that are razing our communities. Inclusionary zoning – a few affordable units within huge market-rate developments – is at best a drop in the bucket, and, most often a window-dressing used to justify huge luxury developments that accelerate the pace of gentrification. While all of these reforms have a place in a larger strategy, tenant rights are crucial today more than ever. The single most aggressive way to increase affordability and defend thousands of working class families in San Francisco is to regulate the rental market.
Last year, Causa Justa :: Just Cause lead an effort to win a “hassle-free” housing law -penalizing landlords who harass, making it harder for them to push working class people out & double the rents in gentrifying San Francisco. We also won a subjective battle. We proved to ourselves, to elected officials, and to our communities who are under attack that displacement is not inevitable, that regulations in market housing can curb displacement, and that impacted communities can lead the fight to build a different kind of San Francisco – one that holds community at its heart.
Who are we up against?
Is it tech corporations, real estate developers, local government? Recent protests against the Google Bus highlighted this question, and made national headlines. Some blame tech workers - highly paid, primarily young white people who are pouring into long-time working class communities of color; workers who too often treat our communities like a colorful “ethnic” backdrop for their corporate lives. Some blame the real estate industry - the most active wing of the finance sector that has a stranglehold on California’s economy. The ruthless industry is famous for creating the foreclosure crisis, embodied now by “flippers” that circle like vultures around Mission District Victorians after a working class family has been evicted, setting up sandwich board signs that signal the conversion of a rent-controlled unit into a million-dollar condominium.
This question came up at a meeting I recently attended, where Mission-district community-based organizations met with tech sector representatives, convened by District 9 Supervisor, David Campos. Google, Facebook, AirBnB, and a host of smaller crowd-source start-ups approached Supervisor Campos, wanting to fix the image problem tech has earned for itself in the Mission District. Rather than letting the big companies make a token gesture for PR purposes, to his credit, he brought mission community organizations together so we could express our concerns directly.
It was enlightening, to say the least, to speak directly to representatives of these companies. I noticed that smaller start-ups tended to have a very different character than the big corporations. And yet, somehow, in the public eye, huge tech corporations retain a kind of “perpetual start-up” image – as if its passion, creativity, genius, that drives them, not the billions of dollars they make in profit. A little research revealed that the giant tech corporations are, in fact, known for cartel-like behavior. A huge lawsuit is currently pending, seeking compensation for tens of thousands of engineers whose wages were kept artificially low. CEO’s from Google, Apple, Intel, and Adobe are being sued for violating the Anti-Trust Act, conspiring with each other so that none of them would recruit engineers at each other’s companies with higher wages, thus repressing engineer wages throughout the industry in order to increase profits.[vi] Not to mention wi-fi buses that shuttle workers from SF to Silicon Valley squeeze at least two more hours of work out of each employee. It was ironic, then, to hear company reps defend tech employees from community criticism. If you wanted your employees to be treated more respectfully, shouldn’t you start by doing so, yourself?
What these tech corporation representatives (many in new “community liaison” positions just created a few months ago in response to public pressure) heard from the community was how tech workers flooding into the Mission creates the profit motive for landlords to push people out. Whether the individual tech workers are conscious of it or not, they are complicit in the process of gentrification. The Google bus protests struck a nerve because they highlighted how the Tech sector is facilitating the forced displacement of families like Jessica’s, all while using city infrastructure built with taxes her family has paid, for decades, while tech companies have dodged taxation. The recent ruling by the Metropolitan Transport Agency requiring these huge corporate buses pay $1 per stop was like a slap in the face to the community. Jessica herself pays $2 each time she rides Muni or gets on the bus – each individual bus rider pays DOUBLE what these tax-dodging multi-billion corporations pay. [vii]
Both the Tech and the Real Estate Industries have to take responsibility for the affordability crisis in San Francisco. Blaming Real Estate is an easy out for Tech companies that claim to be “innovating for social good” but ignore the impact their boardrooms of innovation have on surrounding communities. Meanwhile, Real Estate happily lets Tech workers take the blame for their reckless profiteering, hiding behind the myth that the housing market is some kind of force of nature, instead of a real time series of power relationships that human beings have responsibility for. In the background of each wave of gentrification, each massive increase in rents, each conversion of a rent-controlled apartment into a luxury condominium is an incredibly powerful finance industry that shapes not just San Francisco, but California as a whole.
Who will defend the heart of San Francisco?
Local governments need to step up to the challenge of holding corporations accountable. Accepting gifts from Tech Industry tycoons as a way to let them avoid real taxation is neither sustainable as a strategy, nor defensible morally. Letting Real Estate throw in a couple affordable units as a way to avoid real regulation in the housing market is not just insufficient to meet the affordability needs – it’s fueling the displacement of working class communities of color.
In his “State of the City” address, Mayor Ed Lee promised to defend tenant protections, fight the Ellis Act, and build affordable housing. Without a strategy of corporate accountability, these promises will be impossible to keep. What does the city gain by depriving itself of tax revenue? Billions of dollars come through San Francisco this way, pushing working class communities out and filtering into private hands. Promising to provide “Housing for All” without an aggressive corporate accountability strategy is like handing out free umbrellas in the face of a Tsunami.
And it's bigger than just the Mayor. Every one of us has a role to play in the battle for the heart of San Francisco. Concerned individuals, direct action collectives, neighborhood associations, small businesses committed to the community, tech workers exploited by their bosses, we all have a responsibility. Causa Justa :: Just Cause organizes people like Jessica, people directly impacted by the crisis, who instead of being victims are, through community struggle, becoming protagonists in the fight for the heart of San Francisco. We know that supporting grassroots leadership is the only way we will change the balance of power in the long term, and we built an organization to play that role in the movement. And there are many more roles to play – from legal and policy work, to direct action in the streets, to building affordable housing, to cultural and community healing work. If we work together, we are stronger. As we learned in the late 90s in the mission, we must work together at a scale bigger than any one neighborhood if we are to contend with the powerful forces driving gentrification.
Today, we have citywide organizations like San Francisco Rising and the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, poised to fight the battle for the heart of San Francisco. If local government isn't representing us well, then we can make ourselves heard – at the ballot box, in the streets, at corporate headquarters and bus stops, in church halls and city hall.
Gentrification is not natural. Displacement is not inevitable. Everyday people, when we come together, can change the course of history.
Join Jessica, and hundreds of impacted tenants as we come together to build grassroots power, Sat, Feb 8th, at the citywide San Francisco tenant convention!
Live elsewhere in California? Sign the petition to repeal the Ellis Act.
Tuesday, 22 October 2013 05:23
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) worker strike is coming to a close. After tense negotiations, a tentative agreement has been reached, after workers demanded the restoration of salary cuts and safety measures. In a heartbreaking confirmation of the need for safety measures, two workers were killed this weekend when a scab in training attempted to move a train in Walnut Creek, as the management prepared to run trains despite the strike. This tragic event may have helped push the BART Board to come to the bargaining table with a little humility, or, anyway, some fear of the public opinion.
In the context of this strike, the whole Bay Area has been alive with political conversations – every carpool line, every bus, every twitter account is touching on the topic: How could these tragic deaths have been prevented? Who should be held accountable for the commuter delays? Whose side are you on?
And, yes, it must be noted, as it often is in these conversations - BART workers make higher wages than fast food workers, domestic workers, or the millions of young people who are under-employed. Why? Because the public sector in the Bay Area is a highly organized force. Because they have fighting unions, and by working together, they are able to leverage the power they have to decrease how much they are exploited. Nothing like a strike to make clear just how much power workers have to make themselves heard. So much so that conservative legislators are even trying to push a no-strike law specific to transportation workers.
The issues at the core of the BART strike are bigger than a commuter delay, bigger than a single contract fight, bigger than the sensationalist newspaper headlines, and we need to approach it that way. We are facing a core aspect of the neoliberal transformation of our communities. Corporate interests seek to remove protections to living wages, health benefits, worker protections, environmental standards, and democratic community control. The corporate agenda that BART workers are up against doesn't just seek to lower their wages and security standards – it also invests public money into police, prisons and the military instead, turning the public sector into a machine of repression, and hammering away at the parts of the public sector that benefit the community. The "public private partnership" that BART is allegedly built on has done little to advance the interests of the public. The "private," which is to say, corporate, side of the partnership is clearly running the show.
As a long time Bay Area community organizer and resident, like everyone else, I have relied on BART trains to get me where I needed to go, and, like most people in my community, I support the strike. Causa Justa :: Just Cause was built from a merger of a San Francisco-based organization and an Oakland-based organization. How did our disabled, elderly, and parent members get from one office to the other, to discuss how to build Black and Brown Unity, to mobilize to each others' actions, to bring the costumes to the community room for the member talent show? You guessed it: BART. It wasn't the managers who took us where we needed to go. It was the workers: the grandmothers, the brothers, the transit-dependent families who make BART run. Just like they were there for us, we at Causa Justa :: Just Cause mobilized to be there for them.
This wasn't a fully thought out organizational partnership between Causa Justa and the unions representing the workers; it was messy, real-time emergency response solidarity. And it's an important start to a bigger conversation that our local chapter of Jobs With Justice is creating the space to have. The history of collaboration between community groups like CJJC and labor unions includes plenty of challenges. And this moment in history presents a unique opportunity to reconnect the dots. We have to connect labor and community, across the differences in our priorities and bridging our unique political cultures.
Public transportation is a core feature in the lives of the public in the Bay Area, and is an important arena of struggle. Gentrification and Displacement have pushed working class people of color hours away from the places where they work, and BART is part of their daily lives. Nothing drives that home more than the 1.5 hour BART ride Causa Justa :: Just Cause member Thea Cushman takes from Antioch to rejoin her former East Oakland neighbors for a meeting once a month. Displaced by a Wells Fargo foreclosure, and again by a US Bank foreclosure of the unit she rented, Thea knows all about how corporate control is displacing working class communities.
In fact, I sometimes dream of a campaign inspired by allies in transportation work – a push to lower fares to make the system more accessible to the working class people who depend on it, instead of have it be such a service of convenience for drivers who want to avoid traffic. People Organized to Win Employment Rights won free fast passes for San Francisco youth to ride the MUNI bus system. What would it take to win something like that at a regional level?
For one, it would take a level of organization that is regional. Right now, BART workers are the single largest organized force able to take on BART management. It's no coincidence that despite tons of community support, the newspapers only reported commuter complaints. The BART workers present a real threat to corporate interests in our region, and they will use all the means at their disposal to discredit the workers.
This heroic strike has inspired millions of public sector workers throughout the country with its militancy. And it is just the beginning of what we need to do. Each contract fight, each community demand, each governance body needs to be linked to our long-term movement project of building unity across sectors, so that working class communities as a whole can take our whole region back.
Thursday, 03 October 2013 00:49
Told and retold so many times over the years, our story has become very simple: mainstream white feminism never made space for the perspectives, agendas, and leadership of Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, working class, and poor feminists. And so my generation, disorganized by the painful fragmentation we inherited, rarely leads with a feminist lens. Many times we distance ourselves from feminism altogether. This holds true even for a majority of projects focused on organizing working-class women of color — be it on the job, in the community, or in the realms of home and social relationships.
This version of feminism, in its US political context, is not the whole story though. In the international arena, feminism is alive and well, and feminist ideas are a leading edge in progressive social movements.
This summer I learned a lot about this, when I attended the World March of Women's (WMW) 9th International Meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Initiated by the largest mainstream feminist organization in Quebec, the WMW started as a march "for bread and roses" and grew almost immediately to an international scale. Thanks to its founders' ability to embrace leadership from the global south, it also grew politically.
Over the past 15 years, the WMW has deepened its understanding of national oppression, its commitment to economic justice, and its capacity to grow feminism from the grassroots.
I went to Brazil as a representative of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), a longtime ally of the World March of Women based in the US. GGJ brings together groups, including my organization Causa Justa :: Just Cause, rooted in working-class communities and communities of color to turn our internationalist aspirations into concrete campaigns and relationships with partners in the rest of the world. Most GGJ organizations organize against racism and economic exploitation as part of their daily work. Yet few focus explicitly on gender. Even though many GGJ groups organize a base that is majority women and women and gender-queer organizers are often leading the campaigns, we rarely identify as feminists.
I knew participating in the WMW would be like stepping into a different world. What I didn't know was how influential intersectional US feminisms have been for the women I met from across the globe. Among 1,700 women from 50 countries, Nalu Faria, one of the founders of Brazil's WMW, reinforced the march's vision of feminist internationalism by quoting none other than Englishwoman Virginia Woolf, ideological pillar of second-wave feminism: "As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world."
Later, in a difficult conversation about lesbianism and homophobia within the movement, a young Chilean read Audre Lorde from a Spanish translation transcribed in her decoupage-d notebook:
"Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths."
Who could bring Virginia Woolf and Audre Lorde together into a coherent, internationalist whole? Who could pick up where we've gotten stuck, and write a new ending for the old story, one where we overcome fragmentation, and change the world?
The World March of Women, in the Brazilian Context
The international secretariat for the WMW has been housed in Brazil for the last seven years, after a successful transfer from the founding secretariat in Quebec. The leadership of Brazil's WMW's international secretariat was part of the once-left, now-governing center-left Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores). When the party made electoral inroads, including winning the presidency, these women leaders did not abdicate their power or responsibility to their now-governing colleagues. Neither did they disengage from the state, simplistically writing off that arena of struggle and leaving it in the hands of conservatives as we have seen in other movements. Instead, they re-committed to strengthening their autonomous social movement, making demands of the state and elected officials, and maintaining an inspiring level of mobilization.
Less than a year before the 2010 election of Brazil's first woman president, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party, Brazil's WMW chapter organized a march from every province in Brazil to Sao Paulo. They marched for 10 days, marking the WMW's 10 years in the struggle, and bringing together women from rural northern provinces fighting mineral extraction on indigenous land, with those in rainforest provinces building food sovereignty, and those active in urban trade unions. The march's theme song had a chorus in the Lingala language of the Congo, with verses sung and improvised in Portuguese. This was a song Brazilian women learned at the 8th International WMW Gathering in the Congo, a meeting held in a famously dangerous area where mineral extraction run by international corporations has robbed Congolese women of their land, their safety, and their lives. It was an expression of the incredibly strong ethic of solidarity that the WMW made possible within the context of Brazil's social movements.
Another expression is their work to connect women involved in production and those involved in consumption in a single campaign. While some were fighting the community-destroying extraction of silica in rural areas, others agitated women in the cities to reject breast implants and the patriarchal ideas of beauty they depend on. This was captured in a slogan on stickers that read, "No to the globalization of silicone. Let's globalize feminist revolution!"
Dedicated to an anti-capitalist challenge to patriarchy, and to the project of reclaiming internationalist feminism for the grassroots, the World March of Women is an incredibly inspiring global social movement, a leading force in the World Social Forum (WSF) process — also initiated by Brazilian social movements — and a key organizer of the WSF's militant, cross-sector Social Movement Assembly.
De-Patriarchalizing Our Social Movements
In the Latin American context where social movements against neo-liberalism are vibrant and progressive governments reflect the gains of those movements, overcoming male domination and its structures and cultures in movement organizations is a key project often called "de-patriarchalization."
In a panel on the trajectory of Latin American feminism, Francisca Rodriguez described her experience in the Chilean left in the 70s, and the experience of many women in the context of 20th century movements, when she said, "In our movement, we used to have to say 'I am not a feminist' all the time. It was a disclaimer you had to make before raising any issues in defense of women." Now Francisca describes the process she and other women in La Vía Campesina are leading to transform the world's largest grassroots organization from a male-dominated peasant social movement into a feminist-identified, women-led one.
She was joined by Sandra Morán, Guatemalan ex-guerilla and social movement leader, who rallied the crowd by putting La Vía Campesina's process into the broader context of feminism's trajectory in Latin America: "We can't afford to believe the lie that feminism belongs to those who are distant from social movements. We are feminists shaped within social movements, within national liberation movements, in community organizing, in movements against austerity and for workers' rights. Feminism is ours and we are taking this grassroots feminism with us on the road to changing the whole world."
She shared stories about her work with fellow indigenous women from Mesoamerica, and the challenges and potential of drawing on ancestral traditions, while questioning the concept of dualism (which frames belief systems in a binary opposition of two conflicting and complementary parts) that is core to their cosmology and so often manipulated to defend exploitative gender roles.
Women from every continent were part of the conversation, sharing their stories and seeking common ground through intensive political training and education, discussion, debate, and direct action. The questions were not about whose ideas were most feminist. Instead, the conversation was about how best to universalize feminist values within a broader analysis, and how to build the solidarity that a feminist transformation of economic and social relations depends on.
Francisca challenged the group to think about movement building across gender. "When we women get together," she said, "we can walk forward quickly. But we will later find ourselves having to stop and wait for the male comrades to catch up."
She pointed out a bigger challenge that feminism faces: as we organize against women's oppression and exploitation, how do we articulate a broader "we" that includes all genders? My mind drifted back to the US context, where so much vicious patriarchal and structural violence is directed at transgender people. How could transgender feminism advance the fight against patriarchy? What kind of feminism could we build that represents the interests of women without marginalizing other sectors of people who also battle patriarchy every day?
Incredibly loud chanting brought me right back to the present moment, as if on cue to answer my questions. One hundred Brazilian Trade Unionists were marching in, joining the large group after concluding an international women unionist exchange. They chanted the promise women make to each other at all World March of Women events and to the social movements of the world: "We will keep marching!! Until EVERY one of us is FREE!"
African Leadership in De-colonizing Feminism
The next chapter of the World March of Women will be written with a distinctly African perspective, as the international secretariat now moves to Mozambique. Mozambican leader Graca Sambo, the WMW's new International Coordinator, drew on the legacy of her country's fight for independence when she gave a moving campaign speech, calling for a "de-colonization" of feminism, and for the importance of reclaiming of the feminist tendency within national liberation movements in Africa.
She quoted Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel, making the most brilliant argument for feminism: "The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success."
Participants in the gathering got to know more about the Mozambican delegation's work and ideas in other ways as well. When organizers caught wind that the CEO of the Brazilian mining corporation Vale was going to appear at the venue of the WMW meeting for an after-hours event hosted by a local black college, the Mozambican and Brazilian organizers wasted no time. A direct action was quickly planned and hundreds of women chanted in their common language of Portuguese: "Vale (which translates as 'worth') is worthless to women!" After disrupting the auditorium where the speech was going to take place, we gathered outside to hear Mozambican and Brazilian women talk about the impact of mineral extraction on their home communities, and the need for a global movement to take up the struggle on a global scale.
After feeling the emotion of that international solidarity, the election of the new hosts for the international secretariat was an even more moving experience. It marked a new stage, where black internationalist leadership will set the pace for the WMW. For African feminists and organizers, it signals a huge new moment of possibility, a potential radicalization of NGO projects beholden to UN and charitable aid, new relationships of support for grassroots people's movements, and rich possibilities to continue connecting work throughout Africa with campaigns against mineral extraction, against militarization and war profiteering, and with feminist forces in pro-democracy fights in North Africa and the Middle East. For the outgoing Brazilian secretariat, it confirms the vibrancy of the March, more than 15 years strong, and still growing its grassroots internationalism.
Representatives from 50 national coordinating bodies voted in favor of the new international secretariat, each woman holding up a yellow paper sheet showing consensus for the 12 representatives from Mozambique who were bravely stepping into leadership. The moment was rife with emotion, tears flowing as people clapped and the Mozambican delegates stepped up to the front of the room, singing a song from the independence movement. The song named dozens of countries present, calling to them "Hear Ye! Hear, Africa! If you are proud to be an African woman, say it! My ancestors were all born on this land!"
The World March of Women's next global action, within its strategy of "permanent mobilization" is an international action in 2015. Starting with the commemoration of the anniversary of the Bangladesh factory fires in late 2012 and early 2013 that killed hundreds of young garment workers making clothes for transnational corporations, women from every member country will mobilize in a 24-hour action to build consciousness and take action in defense of the rights of women workers. This action will give chapters of the WMW in Asia a unique opportunity to organize more deeply, to lift up their demands and visions, and to leverage international support for their ongoing campaigns.
For this period leading up to the next global action in 2015, the WMW's work is organized into four main areas: nature and food sovereignty, peace and demilitarization, women's work, and violence against women. Its core organizing principle is the idea that women all over the world have something in common, and solidarity among women can transform the structures of oppression. By reclaiming feminism for the grassroots, the WMW believes we can take the solidarity economy that is already built into our families and oppressed communities and build an alternative to capitalist structures of economic injustice.
Reclaiming Feminism, Reclaiming Joy
The meeting came to a close with a massive, raucous street march celebrating women's struggles all over the world. We made joyful noise in multiple languages. The gathering's slogan, "Feminism on the March to Change the World," framed the proceedings with a huge banner carried by a disabled women's collective at the front of the march.
The march was part street protest, part carnival, and all international feminist political education. Young women wheat-pasted their protests about the lack of women's domestic violence shelters in Sao Paulo. A drag queen waved and threw confetti from an apartment window. Every country represented with a banner in their language naming their struggles — from Greeks against austerity to Filipinas against sex trafficking, to Tunisians for democratic rights for women.
It was an amazing experience to be one of the two Latinas representing the US in that setting, holding the Grassroots Global Justice "No War! No Warming! Build an Economy for People and the Planet" banner and marching along. Earlier that day, we contributed to the final declarations of the assembly, stating our opposition to US military attacks on Syria, which opened the door for many enlightening conversations.
I spoke to people who had no idea there was an anti-war sentiment in the US, let alone any organizing to address the struggles of working-class communities of color or a US-left committed to build joint struggle with people in the global south who suffer the impacts of our government's war mongering, climate destruction, and neoliberal profiteering.
The feminist batucada (Brazilian drum core), with its contagious rhythm, formed the heart of the march. Hundreds of women, mostly in their early 20s, beat plastic and metal containers decorated with slogans, singing in coordination: "Sexism is going to fall, going to fall, going to fall!" They were our clarions: "Calling all Feminist Revolutionaries!" and "Dear sister, I can't do it without you, together we are stronger!"
Their slogans and camaraderie reminded me of the analysis Cuban philosophy professor Georgina Alfonso laid out earlier in the week. "Personal development," she said, "can't occur without the opportunity for collective development." During Cuba's history, she reflected, "Women overcame their oppression and embraced their dignity to become key actors of the revolution, while men remained within the patriarchal framework." Our task, then, is to build relationships that break the logic reproducing discrimination and patriarchy within the struggle for a better world. She went so far as to say, "Constructing an alternative is not simply an economic project. ... Women's happiness has to be one of our explicit goals. A goal we achieve through shared, collective power."
Until Every One of Us is Free
The World March of Women has blazed a trail for social movements across the world. Those of us organizing working-class communities of color in the US can no longer afford to write feminism off, or let liberal forces ignore its transformational potential and belittle its power. We have to reach beyond individual rights, beyond identity-based caucuses, beyond intersectional analysis devoid of the practice of base building, and we have to make feminism real. We have to embrace the complexities of feminism, it's many stories, and learn how to integrate gender justice into all our work for racial, economic, and climate justice.
Just like they have done in Quebec, in Brazil, in Mozambique, we must take up the project of reclaiming feminism from the grassroots. We must do so in our context, facing our unique challenges, building on our histories of feminist resistance, and reaching for the global scale of solidarity that our very personal and very specific liberation depends on.
"Women of color feminism" has a strong trajectory in the US, even within our generation — like the radical direct action of abortion clinic defense in the 90s, the visionary work of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and the powerful domestic worker organizing that has been happening in the last decade through the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Every day women lead union contract fights, push back against cutbacks in social services, fight to keep their homes, struggle to keep their families together in the face of deportations, reach out to each other to survive patriarchal relationships, patriarchal violence. How much more would these women win, how much more would our movements win, if we developed an explicitly feminist way to understand their oppression, and our collective liberation?
Could we embrace feminism in a new way, respectfully and rigorously tackling the differences among all people, women and not, oppressed by patriarchy in the US? If we did, I think we'd be that much closer to a world where every one of us is free.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 16:31
I've had countless conversations with young white activists who, struggling to reconcile their commitment to movement work with their newfound antiracist practice of embracing leadership from oppressed communities, ask me, quite plainly "What should I do with my life? I don't understand what role can a white person like me can play in building a multi-racial movement."
In his collection of essays Towards Collective Liberation, Chris Crass tackles these kinds of questions, head on. Offering a rare combination of emotional honesty and intellectual rigor, he shares stories filled with inspiration, conflict and, ultimately, insight. He tracks his own development from the Food Not Bombs collective kitchen to the college activist study group to the building of the white anti-racist capacity building hub, the Catalyst Project.
There are many paths into the social movement, and all of them have a deeply personal dimension. Some of us come to this work through the process of learning to embrace our power, to understand our oppression, to give direction to our righteous rage. Some of us come to this work through the process of learning to question our power, to understand our privilege, to challenge ourselves to open space for others.
At the bay area launch of the book, Chris confided about his early struggles dealing with privilege "As a white, middle-class, cis-gendered man, sometimes I felt like the best thing I could for the movement was just stay in bed." The group roared with laughter. You didn't have to be a white guy to relate to the sense of confusion, the lack of direction, the teen-like angst of burgeoning anti-racism.
Most of us, I think, get a taste of both privilege and oppression along our path. My own journey, as a light-skinned Latina from a privileged layer of the working class, as a gender conforming queer woman, as a trauma survivor living with a disability, has been as much about letting go of power as it has been about embracing it. Understanding my oppression was and is core to finding my way into the movement, but that was not the end of the road. Understanding my liberation turned out to be even harder, and, at this point in my life, even more important. My very own and very personal liberation, the liberation of my biological and chosen families, of my peoples, depends on collective liberation.
And, it turns out no one is going to chart that path for me, or for any of us. As the Latin American saying says, you make the road by walking. And, as the Zapatistas modeled, whole communities can "walk while questioning," engaging in deep and critical inquiry, without ceasing to move forward in the collective work.
This is the process of inquiry and growth that Towards Collective Liberation documents, a process of personal inquiry and political growth that many new activists struggle with, and that seasoned organizers will recognize, too.
The book ends with a wonderful interview with Amy Dudely, of Oregon's Rural Organizing Project. Like the book, she articulates a loving challenge to white anti-racists that holds true for any one of us struggling to know our path. She says, "It is better to mess up in the pursuit of justice than to be perfect at doing nothing! This is risky work."
Whether you are starting your movement journey as a young white anti-racist, or needing a little company along a well-worn movement path, this book is a wonderful fellow traveler.
Thursday, 25 April 2013 21:13
Reflections on the World Social Forum. Tunis, Spring 2013.
Tunisia is a society under construction. After a successful revolution in 2011 that sparked the "Arab Spring", the country, and the entire region, are in the midst of profound social transformation. I went to Tunisia thrilled to learn from the social movements that overthrew a profoundly entrenched, decades-long dictatorship. The World Social Forum (WSF), held in Tunis in late March, occurred in the wake of this groundbreaking change. The Forum brought together 50,000 people from social movements on all over the world to share and learn from each other and from the advances of the "Arab Spring."
Alma Blackwell, lead member of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, and I were both part of a majority-women of color delegation of Left community-based organizations from the United States, organized by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ). In our community organizing work at Causa Justa :: Just Cause in California, we emphasize bringing our work to scale, and building a movement strong enough to have national impact. Just last month, we helped launch Right to the City's national "Homes for All" campaign and brought together homeowners in foreclosure with public housing residents, homeless people with renters, all with the goal of building a movement large enough to win the change we need.
Thursday, 21 March 2013 03:50
I am part Argentine, and a bit nationalist (particularly around World Cup time), so it's no wonder I've been congratulated many times about the new, Argentine Pope. And, while I think almost anyone would be an improvement on the previous ultra-conservative, Nazi-youth-league member Pope Benedict, I question whether Pope Francis will really move the Catholic Church in a progressive direction. And if he won't do it, who will?
Tuesday, 19 March 2013 03:05
Reflections on internationalist solidarity, in preparation for the 2013 World Social Forum in Tunisia
"Hijab is part of our culture!" yelled a young woman in a gold and yellow "hijab" Muslim headscarf, squared off against an older French blonde, whose chin and shoulders were pulled back, signaling how offended and taken aback she was. "You think feminism is taking off the scarf?" the young woman continued, "Why don't you stop the wars in our countries, stop the criminalization of Islam in Europe? We do not want to be in your country but we have no choice but to migrate, now you want to take away our culture, too?"
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 05:54
I love sports. I relish the drama; the feats athletes accomplish in a heat of competition against themselves; the poetry of a team that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
What leftist doesn’t like watching human beings overcome tremendous adversity, often while also challenging racism, sexism, able-ism and empire at the same time? Former colonies face off against the colonizers they once overthrew, working class discipline shines, women shatter glass ceilings and oppressive notions of femininity. Even the rivalry between imperialist countries makes appearances, in the form of handsprings, javelin throws, and slam-dunks.
In the Olympic games, the whole world is watching. Millions of people are connected across geography, language, and culture. I’m struck, in these first few days, by awful US reporting on China’s Olympic Team. Women’s weightlifting, swimming, gymnastics, and diving come with voiceovers and articles espousing endless speculation about China cheating. Xu Qi, captain of China’s swim team commented on this, saying “Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin are both recognized as geniuses. There were geniuses in France and South Africa. We admit and accept these geniuses, but why can’t a genius come from China?”