I’m stoked to have found this great video from the folks behind Australia’s National Permaculture Day, happening this year on May 6th. One of the things that I think is powerful about Permaculture is that it takes a hands-on and solution oriented approach to global challenges and encourages folks to do what they can, where they are, with what they have. Creating a national day of independent but linked local events is a great organizing strategy – very similar to the strategy that Occupy movements around the world are using to organize May Day 2012 events just a few days earlier, on May 1. It may be a coincidence that these two events happen so close to each other, but I don’t think it has to be.
I often find myself feeling like I straddle two worlds that don’t seem to cross one another very often: one as a Permaculture acitivist, and one as a social justice activist. I struggle with this divide, because I feel that there is such a natural fit with these two worlds. That’s why I’m cross-posting this article on both of my blogs, which isn’t something I’ve done before. My hope is that my Permaculture community and my rad political community will start to cross pollinate through whatever conversation arises from it. In my experience it’s so rare for these two communities to ever cross; many folks on both sides seem to feel that they don’t need the other. I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.
I consider myself a radical, and to me that means that my activism is about getting down to the roots of the problems that we face, curing the dis-ease instead of just abating the symptoms piece by piece. This involves a willingness to bravely confront the reality of just how fundamental to the dominant culture the destruction of our world is, and how deep a change in our everyday living we need to be willing to commit to in order to shift it. I love my radical community because it is the most inspiring and empowering thing I have ever experienced to be surrounded by people willing to look at how scary the state of the world is, and do the work that’s called for in spite of fears and obstacles. Fierce hearts and the courage to follow them are the hallmarks of radicals.
I want to see that same spirit of unflinching willingness to commit to fundamental change – social, as well as ecological – be something that Permaculturalists take up as well. I want to say to Permaculture people that the ecological crisis we are facing has social roots. It’s a direct result of the culture, the economic system, the political system, that dominate on this planet right now, and until there is fundamental change in that culture, that economy, those politics, the ecological crisis will only continue to worsen. If we really want to move the world toward Permanent Culture, it behooves us to make this reality central to our work, no matter how scary it is, and put our work in solidarity with the struggles of communities who are at the margins of the dominant culture. I say this not out of some sense of charity toward the “less fortunate,” but for the very pragmatic reason that those margins also happen to be the front lines of the battle to contain the cancer that is industrial capitalism and the ecological destruction that comes with it.
When I see a video like the one above, I feel both excited and frustrated. The message is so uplifting and inspiring, which is important for helping folks feel that they are powerful enough to make the changes they want to see in their communities. And also, it shows a romanticized ideal of Permaculturalists creating a utopic new world without the need to confront the existing system in a direct way. It’s a vision that seems to assume that people have access to land, the ability and time to garden, and a whole host of other things that folks in many communities don’t have – how, then, are those folks supposed to see themselves in the vision that this video is putting forward? Will National Permaculture Day events offer solidarity to help overcome those barriers, or just leave it up to the people trapped behind the barriers to deal with them? Nothing in the video gives us a clue as to what the answers to those questions might be. The video also frustrates me because it only shows (apparently) white people actively engaging in Permaculture, while using images of people of colour to represent the passive “poor” and to frame the challenges of global poverty and environmental destruction that set the context for the video in the first few seconds.
The imagery and the text of those first few seconds seem to show water overuse, desertification, and global food insecurity as if they are politically-neutral states of existence, forces of nature that don’t have causes and consequences, that aren’t being inflicted on some people by some other people. I find it all too common in Permaculture for us to address the facts of the global ecological crisis without acknowledging how it got to be that way and how and why different communities are affected differently by it. The placement of relatively affluent white people as active while people of colour are “poor” and passive, coupled with the lack of politicized language around the facts of the ecological crisis, contribute to the invisibility of the social roots of the crises we face, roots that are stuck in the contaminated soil of colonization, racism, and domination. This matters because those same social factors continue every day to deepend the ecological crisis, but they go on behind a curtain of obfuscation because many people don’t want to hear about them, don’t want to acknowledge or engage in conflict with dominant assumptions, structures, and cultural norms. I find it all particularly sad in a video that comes from a country much like the one I live in, whose land was stolen from Indigenous folks whose faces and voices are absent from this message. In fact, many indigenous peoples are fighting hard in Australia to stop the depradations of industrial resource exploitation from destroying their lands and lives.
This oversight is certainly not because the makers of this video or the organizers of National Permaculture Day are setting out to be racist, or classist, or to exclude people. I know they work hard and have the best of intentions. Rather, it’s the logical outcome of the sadly common invisibility of race and class issues within Permaculture as a movement. It’s also a result of the idea that “the environment” is an issue that’s separate from politics, economics, or social issues, a legacy of the mainstream environmental movement that Permaculture has yet to actively shed in many places. This is also perfectly understandable. Many people don’t want to look at the political reality of how the ecological crisis arose, they don’t want to place themselves in conflict with the dominant culture of which they are a part. What’s important to realize, though, is that many people don’t have the choice of whether or not to engage, because the conflict is in their backyards. Contributing to the invisibility and depoliticization of the ecological crisis helps to silence and take power from those peoples’ struggles and hence from our own chances of collective survival. It’s all the same ship, after all, and if there’s a hole in one part of it, we’re all going to go down.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t spread this video around (please do!), or engage in National Permaculture Day activities. What it does mean is that we need to understand how Permaculture is linked to the direct struggles of people around the world for environmental justice. We can ask ourselves, what little things can we do in all of our communications and our actions to make sure that we are acting in solidarity with peoples’ struggles, and not contributing to the erasure and invisibility of their voices and issues? It may seem like a small thing to put a race and class lens on how you produce a video, or to change the wording of how you present the facts to take away their value-neutral sugary coating, but isn’t a big part of Permaculture to see how we can make the least change for the greatest effect in any situation? Radical social analysis has a huge wealth of both ideas and strategies for action to contribute to how Permaculture activists do just that.
What I love most about my Permaculture community is the willingness to roll up our sleeves and do what we can, right now, to make changes in our daily lives to become more in line with earth systems. I often wish that my radical activist community would get its hands in the dirt a little more, get a little closer to the earth and to each other and to what brings us joy in the way that Permies do so well. We can look unflinchingly into the scary truth and cut the dis-ease of industrial civilization out at its root, and do our earth healing work in a way that honours that truth and the struggles that arise because of it. MayDay for gardens and meaningful work, instead of earth-destroying mines and jobs to prop up capitalism? Permaculture Day for environmental justice and solidarity with indigenous peoples? Let’s throw out the either/or and turn this into a both/and. Because if we try to do one without the other, I’m pretty sure we’ll fail at both.
Okay, I’m too angry to bother even trying to be all eloquent about this. This is the response I just got from UBC to my letter regarding the misogynist, racist anti-abortion hate group that gets invited to UBC every year by a bunch of hate-mongering students who call themselves “pro-life.”
This is one of the most insidious and self-congratulatory apologist pieces of shit I have ever read. I am shaking with rage over this right now, and I don’t even go to UBC any more, I don’t even have to interact with these assholes on a daily basis. What must women who are actually on that campus be feeling about all this? How targeted, how unsafe, how traumatized and unwelcome must those women feel? THIS kind of shit is why I dropped out of UBC in the first place, not coincidentally in the same year that hate messages and threats of violence were written all over the Feminist Collective and Women’s Centre’s women-only space (and my office door, btw) when I was coordinator of that space. You can imagine what UBC did about it: precisely shit all (aside from some elected student government asshole implying that I might get disciplined for putting up posters saying WE WILL NOT BE TARGETS in unapproved places in the SUB after the student society wouldn’t even make a statement amounting to the idea that threatening to rape feminists for being feminists might be, you know, not really okay). Shit doesn’t change much. Please, take a minute if you haven’t (and if you have, consider taking another one) to let UBC know that hate speech is not free speech and that this is unacceptable.
Here is the letter. Have a barf bag ready.
Thank you for your comments. While I appreciate your opinion in this matter, I would like to frame what happened in the context of Professor Stephen Toope’s March 3, 2009 message to the UBC community regarding respectful debate. Professor Toope writes, “As a university community, we place a paramount value on the free and lawful expression of ideas and viewpoints.”
In the case of Ms. Davidson’s choice to remove her clothes as a form of protest, it is the notion of “lawful expression” that is the pertinent issue, including the choices Ms. Davidson made when asked to put back on her clothes by a Campus Security staff member.
The reason that Ms. Davidson was invited to speak with the Student Conduct Manager was not only because she chose to take off her clothes, but also because she refused to put them back on, and further that she informed Campus Security that she was not a student, when in fact, she was.
It was because of these choices that Campus Security, quite properly, brought the allegations of a breach of the Student Code of Conduct to the attention of the Student Conduct Manager, who in turn, met Ms. Davidson to discuss the allegations.
Ms. Davidson is not being disciplined – under the University Act, the President is the only person who can discipline a student. Before the President could make such a decision, the case would be heard by the President’s UBC Vancouver non-academic misconduct committee. As part of this formal process, the student would be invited to attend a hearing to fully explain/defend her/his actions. The complete rules for the Committee process can be found here: http://universitycounsel.ubc.ca/files/2012/02/Rules-for-the-Presidents-Non-Acad-Misconduct-Committees.pdf.
I believe our actions in this case demonstrate that common sense was applied – the student was not disciplined. Moreover, the new Student Code of Conduct, and the way in which it was implemented, demonstrates our ability to be flexible and respond in an appropriate way to the specifics of each case.
We are not debating one form of free expression versus another. We are simply applying a code of conduct with the kind of care and understanding to which our students are entitled.
Louise Cowin, Ph.D.
Vice President Students | Office of the VP Students
The University of British Columbia | Vancouver
Below is the text of a letter that I just sent to a former colleague at UBC in regards to his part in taking disciplinary action against a UBC student who took her clothes off to protest the presence of a misogynist and racist hate group called the Genocide Awareness Project that was holding a large public display on campus. Their display of anti-abortion messages equating abortion to historical genocide, complete with two-metre high photos of holocaust victims, lynchings, and victims of Pol Pot’s massacres next to what are supposedly photos of aborted fetuses.
I urge everyone to call or write to UBC and let them know what you think about their protecting racist, misogynist hate groups instead of protecting students from being targeted by that hate.
Read about the original action here.
I wonder if you remember me, we worked together a few years ago through the Sustainability Ambassadors program. Your name pops up in my contacts sometimes when I write to other folks whose names start with C., and I often wonder how you’re doing. I see you’re still at UBC, which I hope means that you’re doing well there and enjoying your work.
I have to say, though, that when I saw your name connected to this article about an incident on campus last month, I was deeply shocked at the behaviour that’s reported from you. Surely you must understand that the GAP display has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with targeting women with messages of hate, while simultaneously co-opting the stories of people of colour, Jews, First Nations, and all victims of hate-motivated mass genocide to support that misogynist targeting. To equate support for a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body with the organized attempt to exterminate an entire group of people is not only deeply insulting to both women and the people whose stories are being stolen, but is also highly traumatic to those very people, by the use of images of historical genocide placed beside what are reported to be images of aborted fetuses; these images, as well as their juxtaposition, constitutes a real threat to feeling safe on campus for people of colour, for women, and for many, many others.
I know this, because when I was coordinator of the Feminist Collective and Women’s Centre in the SUB, I ended up acting as an impromtu lay counsellor for many women, especially women of colour and women of African and Carribbean descent, who were so traumatized by this display and its content that they came crying into the centre. Many others simply stayed home from classes that day to avoid having to see the images and experience the hateful messages that the GAP people amplify through their PA system. Think about that: an action that causes members of specific, systemically oppressed groups to stay away from UBC because they feel so targeted by that action. How is that not hate? How is that in any way defensible by any institution that claims to promote a climate where all people can come and learn from each other, where all people are welcome?
The GAP display is misogynist and racist. The actions of one brave student to do whatever she felt able to do in that situation to oppose it in a way that allowed her to feel empowered should be applauded, not punished. It is not the place of those who are not directly impacted by an act of hate to tell those who are directly impacted by it how they should respond to it, or whether or not their response is appropriate. When women and people of colour are staying home from school because they feel so targeted with hate by the GAP display, it is not one woman’s naked body that UBC should be worrying about.
Why this hateful group is even allowed on campus in the first place is a different topic for a different letter. In this letter, I urge you in the strongest sense to withdraw all disciplinary action against Justine Davidson and, in future, perhaps the administration at UBC would consider taking action to minimize the harmful effects that the GAP display has on students before a woman has to take her clothes off to make a point about it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately, not because of you-know-what corporate holiday which I do my best to ignore, and also not because of another silly Chris Hedges article, but because of the way that love moves as a current through the movements that I’m involved in. I’m interested in what we think of as constituting love, and what we don’t. What do we mean when we talk about love? As a verb, or a noun, or both? As a place that we go to, or a landscape that we move through? And what does that look like when we translate it to addressing the distance between the world we want to live in, and the world that we are in now?
First off, I would say that love is about boundaries. Knowing your own boundaries, taking repsonsibility for yourself and your own well being. Knowing what you need for yourself in order to be able to support those that you love, and being clear with yourself and those around you about what those boundaries are. Second, respecting the boundaries of others, honouring the right of everyone to be the sole and sovereign arbiter of where their boundaries are and whether they’re being respected or not. It’s not up to anyone to say where someone else’s boundaries should be, or when they have been crossed. Nobody else is an authority on anyone else’s boundaries, but sadly we often see “love” being trotted out as a way to push or guilt someone into allowing their boundaries to be trampled on, especially if defending those boundaries might possibly look like conflict, or like anger at their being trampled in the first place.
Within our communities, and especially communities that are explicitly focussed on creating social change, we need to take seriously our responsibility to one another’s boundaries. Real respect for boundaries is how our love for those in our communities and our movements manifests itself. I’ll quote Courtney Desiree Morris here, from the brilliant article Why Misogynists Make Great Informants:
“When we allow women/queer organizers to leave activist spaces and protect people whose violence provoked their departure, we are saying we value these de facto state agents who disrupt the work more than we value people whose labor builds and sustains movements.”
If we really mean that our movements are movements based on love, then we need to take a hard look at which people and behaviours our actions show that we value; we need to ask ourselves, who do we really show our love for? Put another way, who and what are we willing to fight for?
Throughout all sorts of narratives surrounding social movements, we see a false dichotomy being constructed between anger and love, between fighting and loving. This mythology is often rooted in a dogmatic pacifism that paints all situations with a brush of universality, oversimplifying every action to some sort of essentialist state machine: either an action is loving, or it isn’t. It’s violent or it isn’t, no matter the situation or the motivation or the people involved. The context disappears, the humanity disappears, the long story leading to that moment where a rock is thrown or an angry word is spoken drops away and those around, often those who are not directly affected by whatever is triggering the angry word or the rock, shut themselves off from whoever is doing the shouting, or the throwing. But what kind of love is that, to turn away from someone because they fight for what they love?
Anger is a part of love, especially when we are talking about manifesting our love in public, in our communities and our movements. Why? Because everything that we love is under attack. I’m not speaking only of rivers, forests, animals, wild lands and wild people that are obviously being actively extinguished by the grinding death machine of the capitalist-colonial state. I’m also speaking of our very ability to engage in love, the habitat within the social landscape that love needs to feed and grow and multiply. Capitalism, through stealing what we need to live and compelling us to wage slavery to buy it back, creates a hierarchy where people are taught not to be accountable to who and what they love, but rather to who and what has power over them. Bosses, landlords, banks – in a commodified understanding of the world, we learn to see only relationships of power-over. Our capacity to relate horizontally, to hold ourselves accountable to who and what we love, begins to atrophy. When the most dominant forms of social relations focus on appeasing those above us and maintaining position over those below, we lose track of those who are beside us. We confuse privilege, which is being higher on the hierarchy, with real freedom, which is the absense of the hierarchy and the freedom to be our whole, authentic selves. We lose our capacity to function in relationships where all are equals – and what is love if it’s not between equals?
When relations of production and utility – whether it’s the utility of paying the rent or the utility of “not dividing the movement,” whatever that means – trump relations of solidarity and care, what we’re left with is only the shell of love, lip service. Because love without accountability, without taking responsibility for our own boundaries and those of others, is an insult to the respect and mutuality that constitutes real love. Embedded within social processes that destroy the capacity for love to exist, how can anyone that values love not be outraged? When surrounded by a culture that makes love impossible, of course our love will manifest as anger, as fierceness, as our willingness to stand up and fight.
This outrage and the love that underpins it are not, as some would have us believe, opposed or mutually exclusive forces. If I stand up to call out an abuser in my community, whether that is a single individual engaging in racist or sexist behaviours or the faceless and grinding violence of police and the state in its many forms, it is not because I have a lack of love. I don’t just need to go and meditate on love or give the fucking abuser a goddamned hug, and to say that I do is an insult to the deep and implacable love that motivates me to put myself at risk, to put myself on the line to clear a space for love to flourish. Rather, it’s a measure of the strength of my commitment to love that I refuse to be silent and allow behaviour that makes people unsafe to go unchallenged, because love cannot flourish in a space where people are not accountable to each other and willing to take responsibility for one another’s safety.
When we express our love for our home, our people, our community by drawing boundaries around what we love and refusing to allow what destroys all that we love to cross them, the place from which we fight, and from whence our outrage comes, is a deep commitement to love. Certainly we will not all act on that love in the same way, we all choose where and how and when we fight, but if we truly mean to be revolutionaries of love, then our first task is to stand with one another wherever our fight is and in whatever way we can. Not because we hate or are incapable of loving those that we are fighting, but because we love enough to not allow what destroys love to continue. We fight not because we lack love, but because of it.
It breaks my heart when I see those whose love calls on them to stand up and fight being accused of not being loving enough by those who are willing to stand on the sidelines and do nothing. How arrogant to say that my love must look like yours in order to be considered love, to claim a monopoly on love and require that I check at the door my experiences and my story that make me different from you, when what I love is at risk in ways that are invisible to you and don’t affect you because of those very differences. That is not being loving, but merely selfish and self-referential. To say that I lose my claim to being loving because I am angry at what threatens my love is dehumanizing. It is the very depth of arrogance, and if there is any feeling, any action, that is the opposite of love then surely it is not hate, but arrogance.
So this is my declaration of love for all the fighters, for those whose love rears up as an inexorable force that calls us to defend what is sacred, what is human, what is worth fighting for. We know that we are not fighting because we love to fight, but because we are fighting for the survival of what we love. Our love is fierce, our love is unshakable, and our love will prevail. I love you all, my friends. I’ll see you in the streets.
There’s already been lots of talk in the blogosphere today about Chris Hedges recent article describing “black bloc anarchists” as harmful to the Occupy movement, as a “gift” to the structures of state violence. Others have done an excellent job of picking apart the flaws in Hedges’ description of what a Black Bloc is, and the problems with his inability in this case to separate Black Bloc as a tactic from anarchism as a political tradition, so I won’t go into that here. The assertion that anyone besides the state is reponsible for the violence of the state is just another case of classic victim-blaming, the political equivalent of telling a woman in an abusive relationship that she just shouldn’t make him so angry. It’s the same dislocation of violence from its actual source that creates slut-shaming, putting responsibility onto women for not getting assaulted rather than onto rapists for not assaulting us. It’s a function of privilege to locate the violence in the response, not the instigation. With all the power that Hedges voice gives him, why isn’t he calling out that security apparatus instead of distracting the blame from that apparatus onto those that it targets?
What’s problematic for me here is a definition of violence which ignores the fact that the instigation of this violence is structural, and it’s going on around us all the time. Violence underpins every aspect of the capitalist colonial state. Nothing can really be nonviolent in that context, it can only mean pushing the violence off onto someone else, somewhere else. Violence may move to the margins where it’s mostly marginalized communities that need to see it and live in it every day, but it never goes away. Privilege conceals it, and so gives the appearance of nonviolence to actions that demonstrate compliance, or at least nonconfrontation, but allows the violence of the state to go on unchallenged in other places.
This dislocation of violence from its actual source leads to a second, and perhaps deeper trap that’s laid by privilege, a trap that I see many of my fellow Occupiers falling into on a daily basis. Hedges sums it up perfectly: “This is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience.” His assertion is that tactics that look like violence to those who are insulated from the real violence make us look bad. The idea, he says, is to try to get those folks on our side. And here is the place where he and I part ways.
Because you see, I don’t actually give a shit about what “the wider public and those within the structures of power” think about me and my actions. Speaking to the dominant narrative is not something that I am interested in. I want to smash that narrative and delegitimize its power, not moderate and modify my actions to pander to it. My struggle is to draw boundaries around what I love, what is sacred to me: wildness, human dignity, self-determination for myself and my community, and solidarity with the struggles of others for those same things. My struggle is to draw those boundaries, and when the culture of destruction comes knocking, to give no fucking quarter to what tries to cross them. My boundaries are mine to draw, and the dominant narrative does not have the right to dictate to me what my boundaries will be and how I will defend them if they are crossed.
I’m not talking about aggression, or violence, because to me the defence that I’m talking about is neither of those things. Because make no mistake: the violence is already happening. The first shot has already been fired. Capitalism is violence; destroying it, uprooting it, setting up spaces where we can begin to imagine a life outside of it and holding those spaces as long as we can, these things are not violence. If a person from “the wider public” wants to dialogue, wants honestly and openly to hear what I have to say, if we can meet on equal terms, then I will talk, and I will listen. But I will not waste my time talking to those who refuse to listen, and I certainly will not allow the opinions of those that don’t listen to dictate my actions. In the same way that we demand that those engaging in abusive and oppressive behaviour leave our spaces if they will not hear and be accountable to the effects that their actions have on others, I will not waste my time letting the dominant narrative about what “violence” means control what I do when that dominant narrative ignores whole swathes of violence that are going on every day. I’m not interested in a struggle whose primary concern is staying in the good graces of those in positions of privilege – and here, I speak of the privilege of thinking that there is not violence because you don’t have to see it or live it every day, because it isn’t directed at you. It’s directed instead at different groups of people, whether those people are humans, or trees, or rivers, or marbled murrelets. And for those who don’t think that trees and marbled murrelets are people, if your response is “no they’re not!” as opposed to “tell me why you think that so that I can understand where and how our perspectives differ,” then we have nothing to say to each other. I’m not interested in justifying myself to a narrative that seeks to erase me and everything that I love under a mountain of commodification and death. I have richer, more life-affirming things to do with my time than that.
Because my struggle is for wildness, and so to engage in that struggle my strategy is to try to learn from wildness so that I can become it, because in wildness lies the way out of the mess that we are in. The wildness I look to is the kind to be found in a screaming gale that smashes any ship foolish enough to set out in it, or a mother bear protecting her cubs, or the faceless expanse of a desert. It’s the wildness you find in the pages of Edward Abbey, a wildness that is neither benevolent nor hostile toward the culture of destruction and domestication, but rather simply indifferent. Indifference because that wildness is whole, sovereign, not beholden to any authority but its own inherent reciprocity with each being that it contains. That reciprocity is inescapable, doesn’t have to be written down or enforced. It’s the reciprocity of the redwood tree and my breathing body sitting beneath it, a reciprocity whose currency is oxygen and carbon dioxide – I breathe in what the tree breathes out, and neither of us has to construct that relationship, it’s an exchange born of the generative process of our coevolution. We are accountable to each other, the tree and I, because without one another, we both perish. Not as individuals perhaps, but as a community of beings participant in an ecosystem together, certainly we need each other. Our relationship is one of mutual aid.
Those relationships of accountability and reciprocity are relationships that I will honour, obligations that I will fulfill. But I have no such reciprocity with a culture that seeks to enclose and own and destroy every stick of wood and smudge of soil and drop of water, a culture that elicits the participation of people by tricking some of us into thinking that the privilege it dangles in front of us is freedom, while hiding the real freedom away behind fences and charging admission. The narrative that sits within that culture has nothing that I want, and I will not speak to it, I will not allow that narrative to set the terms by which I will make my decisions and value my actions as “strategic” or “successful.” I won’t spend my energy fighting to make anyone listen, because I don’t actually think that anyone ever convinces anyone of anything. We either choose to listen, or we don’t. In the same way that it’s an assertion of privilege to expect people of colour to educate white people about racism, it’s an assertion of privilege to expect those who see the violence of the state because it’s directed at them to justify their response to that violence to those who are insulated from its effects.
Privilege is a tower that is so easy to get trapped in because it has no windows, only mirrors; people on the inside only see themselves reflected back, and nothing of the world outside is visible. And so if a tactic that defends a community looks like violence from within the tower of privilege that makes the daily violence of capitalism invisible, then I am willing to point out to those in the tower that they can open the latches and find that the mirrors, once opened, can also be doors. But I’m not going to try to fit my struggle and my experience into something that makes sense from within that hall of mirrors, because no change is possible from there. Changes of degree, perhaps, but not of substance. Pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about “violence” from those who are insulated from the very real, daily violence that’s all around us – in other words, Hedges’ “public” – is a normal and understandable response from within the privileged insulation of the tower. But to continue to place that privileged reaction in the central position, where that’s the reality that we need to speak to, that’s the value set that we need to judge and be judged by, is self-defeating to a movement for fundamental change.
And maybe not everyone wants fundamental change, maybe that’s not what everyone is working for. Maybe it isn’t what Chris Hedges is working for, I don’t know. But it’s what I’m working for. Actions that shake up the unassailable calm that’s inside that tower create a moment of opening, a rupture in the daily reality that allows people to see outside of their own perspective, if they are willing to. It is, in a way, a rock from the forest thrown through the mirrors of the tower, shattering the reflections and letting the light in. It’s a chance for those inside to see out, and they might take it and they might not. Their reaction is beyond our control. But this is why we need these sorts of actions in our movement. Yes, those who like it in the tower might not like or understand those actions. Their liking the actions is not the point. The only way to move the centre is to push from the edges, and I’m happy with my position on the edge, on the margin, where the cleared field meets the forest and the wild things lurk. I like it here. Not everyone has to like it; Chris Hedges doesn’t have to like it. Not every plant grows well at the margins where the wind is fierce and there’s little shelter, some occupy a different niche and that’s okay. We need those plants too. But I resent any argument that says that those actions from the margins are wrong because someone in the centre doesn’t like them, especially in a context where the violence and destruction wreaked by what is also in the centre is so gargantuan as to be nearly unfathomable, especially in comparison to a few smashed windows or a bottle thrown at state-sponsored thugs who have chemical weapons and body armour. The tar sands continue, wars for oil continue, private prisons continue, and the most appropriate target for the rage and disgust of folks like Chris Hedges is a few anarchists breaking some windows? Come on. Let’s get real here. The perspective that belongs in that tower only makes sense inside the tower, and the tower is not the whole world. Actions that shake up that tower are an invitation to look out and see what’s happening out in the wild world. People don’t have to like it, they don’t have to take up the invitation. But the wild things will continue to be wild, whether those in the tower like it or not. Maybe those in the tower might take the chance to look out and see the wild, and see that maybe, just maybe, there is something wild inside them, too.
“The Occupy movement is a love movement… Justice is what love looks like in public.”
- Cornell West
Imagine you are being stalked by an invisible enemy. This enemy dogs you everywhere you go, pushing you at every opportunity. To everyone else it looks like you are jerking wildly about because they can’t see the enemy shoving you, pushing you, standing in your path. You fall because the enemy shoves you, and it appears to others that you just can’t seem to keep your feet under you. You flail around trying to keep your balance, and others begin to think that you must be crazy, and give you a wide berth. You begin to wonder if maybe you are crazy, since nobody else seems to see the enemy that’s attacking you. Eventually, you can’t take it any more: you stand your ground, you refuse to be pushed around any more. The invisible enemy tries to stop you, and you shove back, intending to keep moving forward. To those around you, it appears as if you are shouting at nobody, lashing out at thin air. Now they are afraid. Okay, they say, we were willing to tolerate that person when they were just crazy, but now they’re being violent for no reason. We need to do something about them, we need to stop them from behaving this way, we need to punish them, we need to remove them so they don’t hurt anybody with their craziness. And the invisible enemy wins.
Occupy has an invisible enemy. Worse yet, we are fighting this enemy on two fronts: on the one hand, between our movement and the dominant culture that we seek to change; on the other hand, between those within our movement who are fighting their own invisible enemies and those who don’t see, who can’t see. The rhetoric of the 99% is a powerful place to start, and it has brought us together in ways that many of us might not have dreamed possible. At the same time, in seeking to find our commonalities, we have forgotten about the very real effects of our differences. Our different lived experiences, our different positions within the social hierarchy that prefigures our emergence as a movement, mean that we move through the world differently, have different invisible enemies. Entrenched divisions of race, class, gender, language, ability, and many other factors of identity and position effect how we each move through the world, and mean that the structures that we are all fighting against act on each of us differently and with greater or lesser degrees of violence. We must acknowledge that we have come together from the dominant culture that we started from, and we have brought our invisible enemies with us.
Like many Occupies, and many social movements around the world, Occupy Vancouver is struggling with the emergence of bullying and oppression within our community that mirrors what we see in the society we are nested within. This bullying has taken many faces, from male violence against women, to the dominance of white and middle-class voices, to the spread of ideas that certain acts, positions, or views mark a difference between who is a legitimate Occupier and who is not. Witness the media narrative that dominated in the fall that claimed that it was not legitimate protestors, but “just” homeless people who had “taken over” the camps, or that those with more staunch anti-state and anti-capitalist views were simply “provocateurs” there to make trouble or divide the movement.
Inevitably these conflicts will erupt, because we can only come with what we have. The mettle of our movement will be proven in how we respond to these conflicts. When we, as Occupiers, stand up for our right to public space and for a say in how our lives are governed, there are those who dismiss us as violent, as lazy, as troublemakers. Often this dismissal comes from those who think the system is working just fine, because they think it is working just fine for them. Their perspective is the only one whose existence they are aware of, and from their perspective, we are fighting an invisible enemy. And so we orient our movement in part towards revealing the invisible enemy to those dismissers. We understand that this is a vital part of the work, and yet when those inside our movement try to set boundaries against the invisible enemies within our community, often we respond to them in the same way that those outside of Occupy have responded to us. We blame the victim, we locate the violence in the act of defense, and not in the invisible attack. We forget that just because we don’t see the enemy that person is defending against doesn’t mean that the enemy isn’t there.
As a movement, we have a responsibility to create within our community what we want to see spread outward from its boundaries. We cannot paint bullying and oppression within our movement as an interpersonal conflict between two equals when clearly it is not. It’s true that it takes two parties to be in such a conflict, but the two parties are not the person being bullied and the person doing the bullying. The two parties who make such a conflict happen are the person doing the bullying, and the community that allows it to happen by not standing in solidarity with the person being bullied. Our response to internal bullying must be the same as our response to the bullying of the state against us: to stand in solidarity with each others’ struggles, to reveal the invisible enemy.
If our response to these scenarios of internal violence is to try to make rules to prevent them from happening, we are not doing the real work. The real work is in learning from our different lived experiences and building solidarity and support in order to level the playing field between those being bullied and those doing the bullying. The invisible enemy is the power-over dynamics that are entrenched in the culture we are coming from, and our responsibility is to investigate and then eradicate the systemic violence and oppression that is almost always the first punch in any of these conflicts. We must learn to understand what violence actually means, and where it is actually located. We can’t fall into the same trap that the state falls into, making rules against unwanted behaviours without addressing the reasons why those behaviours happen. Male violence against women doesn’t happen because one individual man is a bad person, it happens because we live in a culture that condones and supports that violence by blaming the victim when it happens. Police violence against protestors doesn’t happen because a protestor breaks a window, it happens because police are there to protect the interests of property and capitalism from the capacity of people to set boundaries against their own exploitation; it’s the system that is violent, not the protestor. It’s those systemic causes we must address, both individually and as a collective, not simply try to make up a rule to prevent every possible situation of violence. Rules can be used by abusers to discredit those who call them out, because the rules assume a level playing field between people, a community free of systemic inequality, and that is not the reality. Rules can’t account for oppression, and too easily become a distraction from undoing it, a detriment to our ability to see the invisible enemy as it moves among us. We use our rules as an excuse to shy away from conversations that make us feel vulnerable and unsure: we don’t need to talk about your experience of oppression, we say, we have a rule for that. And in the end, rules also just plain don’t work. To quote Utah Phillips, “the good people don’t need them and the bad people don’t obey them, so what use are they?”
The real solution is much more challenging: to listen to one another, to understand the mechanisms of power-over in our culture and how they effect us all differently based on our different backgrounds, experiences, and idenitites. Harder still is to learn to see the behaviours and assumptions we’ve all been taught to internalize that reproduce that power-over structure, and begin to refuse to participate in it. The catch here, of course, is that we need to listen to those who do not share our experience, and trust them that the invisible enemy they are describing really does exist. While for some the enemy is ephermal and abstract, difficult to grasp, for others it is present and immediate, imminently and intimately real. These two different realities are both true, and to explore them both and learn to understand how they relate to each other is our work as a movement. These are difficult conversations, but they must be had if we are to sustain our ability to Occupy and to hold our lines against the forces that will try to edradicate us.
The conversation we must have between ourselves is in fact the same conversation we are trying to have with the larger culture. It is the conversation between those who see the invisible enemy and those who do not, and the message is clear: we are under attack. We are not the troublemakers. We are not the instigators. We are not, in fact, the occupiers. An engine of death has occupied these lands, sought to exterminate or assimilate the people and ways of life that stand in the way of its domination and consumption of land, water, people, life. This is not an exaggeration. The colonial state exists to clear the way for capitalism, which values only dead things, commodities. Lumber, not trees; meat, not animals; labour power, not people. It creates scarcity by its destructiveness and then leaves us to compete for what is rightfully the common wealth of all to share in. The resulting hierarchies of race, gender, class, language, ability, and other systemic oppressions create privilege for some by marginalizing others. We learn, and rightfully so, to fear the violence and dispossession that comes with being marginalized, the lack of access and choice that marginalization creates. From within the prison that is this false choice of “oppress or be oppressed,” we learn to confuse privilege with freedom.
This act of occupation, upon which all else in the dominant culture depends, is an act of violence. Those who have relatively greater privilege may not see it, and certainly have been taught to live in ways that perpetuate it, to assert or assume power over others without even knowing it. When someone with a different experience points out that power being assumed, they are revealing the invisible enemy. If we listen, and learn, we beat him. If we do not, he wins.
The violence of capitalism and the colonial state that supports it is, for many, an invisible enemy. They are pushed around by it without realizing it is there pushing, it shoves them down and they blame themselves for stumbling. When another stumbles, they blame the stumbler and the invisible enemy gets off scott-free. Those who begin to see it, who get sick of being pushed and stand up to hold their ground appear at first to be instigating, to be making trouble. And whether it is occupying a bank or calling out a bully in our midst, we must learn to love and respect these troublemakers because they show us by their courage where our invisible enemy actually stands and how to hold the line against him. We cannot hold that line alone, we can only do it through our solidarity with each others’ struggles. The invisible enemy works to keep us fighting each other over his scraps instead of standing together to insist he give back what he has taken. Our capacity to support each other is his undoing, so our first task is to expel him from our movement through unlearning how to use his tools of power-over against one another. This task will never be “done;” it is a process of constant learning, unlearning, relearning. With each step we take down that path we build alliances and grow stronger. We each see a piece of the invisible enemy from the vantage point of our diversity of experiences, and if we listen to and stand in solidarity with each others’ struggles, we can reveal his shape and dismantle him together.
Comrades from Egypt recently sent a communique to the #Occupy movement regarding the publicly subsidized theatre known as elections. My favourite part:
“We think that activists or as people committed to serious change in the systems we live in, there is so much more that we can do together than legitimizing electoral processes (leave that boring job to the Carter Foundation) that seem so impoverished next to the new forms of democracy and social life we are building. It should be neither our job nor our desire to play the game of elections.”
We had one of these theatrical events in Vancouver today. As was expected, regardless of who got elected, predatory capitalist property developers got in. What a shock. I offer the following. Fuck politics.