I have experienced what I think is a common feeling of late, in my dealings with social media. It’s an emotional exhaustion that makes one averse to clicking a link to read about one more act of horrendous violence. This aversion isn’t the compassion fatigue of a trauma center nurse, or the secondary trauma of those who work with abused children or survivors of the prison industrial complex. It’s clearly a more distant phenomenon than anything that places one in such immediate, empathetic proximity to the aftermath of harm, but as many of us have learned, it is no less real.
My work in journalism and in social media requires me to have at least a cursory understanding of most major news stories as they unfold, and often, a more in-depth analysis of those events. But I know that I am not alone in having found that some days, I just can’t click that link or take in the details of yet another tragedy.
But I know I can’t indulge that hesitation for long when it occurs, because one cannot fulfill their duty to fight without knowing what they are fighting, in real time. I won’t watch footage of police murders, as I know what state sanctioned death looks like, but I have to carry the stories of those who are taken. I need to know what both my people — Indigenous people — and Black people are up against. I need to be able to echo the names of the fallen.
But sometimes… it’s hard. Especially when you have your own pains and trauma to attend to. Honestly, if I didn’t live in a community that takes care if its own, I probably couldn’t handle the world. I had a great talk with a Black man who I had never met before recently, about what it means to live in resistance and in community. Not being involved with present movements, but having a sense of history, he wasn’t surprised to hear me describe what it was like, working in Chicago’s social justice community. As I explained that we don’t simply attend protests together, but also share laughter, break bread, and rally to get each other out of jail (regardless of how we wound up there), he seemed heartened. “It’s good you do,” he said. “No other way you’re gonna win.” I think he’s right about what it takes to win. But I think for some of us, “what it takes” means something much more immediate than victory, or even resistance. For someone like myself, who has coped with various debilitations, both psychological and physical, and who continues to stare down traumas and challenges that seem almost impossible to process at times, community is survival. Because I truly don’t know if I could sustain myself in this world without the shelter, comfort and purpose my community brings to my own efforts to survive my life. Along with the love of my partner, it’s what gives me the strength to open my eyes and take in the things I’d like to look away from, for the sake of my own sanity. So many people want to look away, and hesitate to take any action against the things they would rather not see. But I really believe that more people would rise up if they understood that living in resistance meant more than staring down what’s ugly, taking risks and incurring trauma. And as a side note, if your resistance work isn’t more than those things, you may be building with the wrong people, because it really ought to be.
So to those feeling the same fatigue that I am, and who have certainly felt it before, I am grateful that we are in this together. I certainly couldn’t be limping through my current struggles — both figuratively and literally — without you. And when I remind you of your worth, I am also reminding myself that we are not simply individuals, trying to bring some light into dark places. We are constellations of action and possibility. We are peoples who not only struggle to tear down the things that harm us, but to live our aspirations for what could be.
We are dreamers who must absorb horror to build forward. And as a human being who, like everyone, may occasionally close my eyes, breathe deeply and not take in the noise of the world, I will open them again. I will stare down what we are up against, and I will get out of bed to fight the good fight. Because this is the moment in history we were handed, and we know what needs to be healed and built.
We know that as we do that work, we are not alone. And if you are, you shouldn’t be. Because you don’t just have to take in the horror. You can be part of a movement that nurtures its own. You can build that space if you have to. You can live the world we want in real time, and that too is an act of resistance.
Today, a group of young Black women and girls led a sit-in in one of Chicago’s most popular parks, before leading thousands of community members into the streets of my city. As I type these words, many are still in the streets, demanding that Black humanity be recognized in an exploitative culture wherein Black obedience has always been enforced, on pain of torture, death or incarceration. It’s easy to understand why some of us at times feel pangs of guilt or regret when we cannot physically lend our feet and voices to such moments. Whether the impediment is a physical or geographical limitation, a matter of childcare or mental health, or any other insurmountable difficulty, our absence can feel like a failure of solidarity.
It’s understandable that we would identify being physically present as an essential expression of love in times of struggle. And for those who can, showing up and lending their feet to long marches and their bodies to blockades, physical participation is a tremendously powerful act. It is a necessary role, and many such people are needed.
For those facing insurmountable difficulties, or a lack of sustainability, such guilt is of course misplaced, but its psychological roots are wholly comprehensible. In the case of the movement for Black lives, for example, it may come from an awareness that anti-Blackness is publicly performed. It is an ongoing, public attack on Black survival and self actualization, and when an endless war, waged against an oppressed people, has harmed so many, it is a natural impulse to want to join the front lines.
Oppression that is visible must be met with visible resistance. And anti-Blackness couldn’t be more visible.
The overseer, the slave catcher, the lynch mob and the police have all enforced Black obedience, and the the consequences of noncompliance, in highly visible ways. Whips, chains, ropes and bullets have not simply served as forms of individual abuse and assassination, but as instruments of terror that aim to enforce the collective submission of Black people under capitalism and white supremacy. These weapons have been employed as social, economic and physical control mechanisms, wielded by those who benefit from and serve white supremacy.
But as essential as public acts of defiance are to movements that confront very public oppressions, some of us have to pause, from time to time, and be gentle with ourselves, and each other, about where and how we are able to contribute. We have to love the work in all its forms — and ourselves, and each other.
As an activist and organizer who is accustomed to putting my feet on the ground at protests and marches, I have been learning, fairly recently, to be patient with myself. I can’t always show up the way I would like to when bold revolutionaries take to the streets. As someone who has at times been able to organize, and to at times document moments of struggle, it has been and remains frustrating to imagine the ways that I could be of assistance if my lower back and left leg weren’t in such rough shape, or if my mental health was stabler.
But as a dear friend has said to me repeatedly (in a particularly scolding tone), the condition that at times disables my leg will not improve if I veer from my (fairly limited) prescribed exercises. I think it’s a positive sign that I no longer become as overwhelmed with guilt about such things. I am more grounded in the reality that I cannot magically change my circumstances, or develop superpowers, simply because I feel an emotional pull towards the streets.
Social change requires transformation, and that’s a long haul proposition, with many roles to fill.
I reassure myself that I am still here in the background, writing what I can, offering trainings to share my skills when needed, and trying to do the work of building community with like-minded people. I, of course, wish I could be physically present in moments like this one, but my admiration for those who show up, in whatever ways they can, gives me the comfort I need to know that I am enough.
Sometimes we support freedom fighters who are pounding the pavement by marching alongside them, and that is a profoundly important task. But in this moment, I need to say to those who aren’t able to do this work with their feet that I see you. The meals you cook, the donations you make, the accounts you run, the healing and other support that you lend reminds me that I am enough.
We can lift up and help sustain the work. We can celebrate the blossoming resistance of marginalized peoples. And we can do it from where ever we have to be, because we are all necessary.
It is essential that we remember, as we strive to contribute in whatever way we are able:
We are essential to the movements we care about.
We are both loved and needed.
And we are enough.
Today, I lent my Twitter account to someone who was able to march. Their own account was shut down for some reason, and I offered to let them to use my Twitter following to keep tweeting about the beautiful resistance that was happening in our city. It was a small gesture, but it was something I could give, so I gave it.
Another friend of mine printed out copies of a profoundly important document about how people can help support movements when they can’t show up in person. The act of sharing that document was crucial movement work. It was organizing. And it was essential.
So if you are showing up in whatever way you can, remember that you matter, and that you are appreciated. Our movements are more than a series of actions, however essential direct action may be — and I obviously believe that it is essential to transformation. But what is necessary isn’t always accessible, and the work of building culture and community is no less important than the work that others are better equipped to carry out.
Transformation, as Michelle Alexander recently stated, means cultivating a new consciousness. We all have a role to play in doing that work. Because a moment that involves direct action without the cultivation of community and culture is just that: a moment. Moments matter, but movements can shake the earth.
To get free, we need everyone. So to those of you who are giving your all, doing work that is often unseen, I thank you for helping me to see the value in my own work, in whatever form it takes.
In the wake of the recent massacre in Orlando, I have encountered significant online commentary about something I didn’t foresee as being an issue at this tragic time: the use of the word “queer.”
As a woman who identifies as queer, I occasionally encounter well-meaning people who don’t understand that the word, once widely used as a pejorative, has long since been reclaimed by the communities it was once meant to bring low. It is now frequently invoked as an umbrella term for sexual and gender identities that do not conform to the socially normalized, heterosexual and cisgender frameworks that dominate our cultural landscape. From time to time, such well-meaning people will express well-intended displeasure, confusion or even outrage at the use of a word they identify as being synonymous with bigotry. And at times, I get pushback from such people, even after explaining that many of us now proudly identity as being exceedingly queer.
Recently, a woman went so far as to challenge my explanation, telling me, “When I was younger, queer was used as an insult. I don’t understand why that term would be embraced.”
This brings up some issues for me, the simplest of which is that this woman doesn’t need to understand, and will likely never understand, numerous aspects of my existence. What sheneeds to do is respect my identity as presented, and make no effort to police my expression of who I am in a world that was never designed to accommodate my existence as a queer Indigenous woman. I could go into the long history of oppressed peoples reclaiming the oppressive terms that have been leveled against them, but I won’t, as I don’t feel I should have to. Our oppressive culture is littered with examples of oppression, degradation and reclamation. Reshaping the material and linguistic content of our oppressions to serve our own ends is a well established phenomenon that has frequently redefined cultural norms, both in and outside the margins.
To me, accepting the identities, pronouns and presentations of self that others bring to the table is a matter of basic respect and decency. I want us all to be free and self-determined. My own adherence to this principle will sometimes challenge me to open my mind or step outside my own experiential comfort zone, but all of that adjustment is about what I need to do to give others the respect they deserve.
Being challenged from a place of presumed righteousness by non-queers who don’t understand the word’s reclamation is something to which I have grown fairly accustomed. But when I encounter this debate outside the realm of basic confusion or distaste, the matter becomes significantly more complicated.
I have encountered gay men who feel that the term has been too widely co-opted by people they feel aren’t quite “queer enough” to own it — which I have only been able to interpret, based on their presented analysis, means that one must either be gay or present a curriculum vitae of their sexual qualifications to be eligible to use the term. I find this “papers please” approach to sexuality problematic, to say the least, but as a woman who is primarily partnered with a cis man, I know that, with or without intention, I enjoy certain hetero-presenting privileges. In my efforts to own that privilege, I have sometimes negotiated with these arguments much more than I should have. In years past, I have actually gone so far as to mention, in these exchanges, just how many women and non-binary people I have been romantically involved with over the years, as though there’s some sexual standard I must meet — at the behest of men — to own my own sexuality. This, of course, is nonsense, and I have since grown out of being baited into such conversations, which to my mind, in part stem from a longstanding tendency toward bisexual erasure in both gay and straight communities.
Having once identified as bisexual rather than queer, I know what it’s like to feel as though I am “too queer” or “not queer enough” for whatever space I may move through. In predominantly straight environments, I have been hypersexualized by men who see me as the potential fulfillment of their desire to possess some aspect or expression of lesbian sex — something they have been acculturated to fetishize. I have also experienced the aggression that is sometimes associated with that hypersexualization, which studies have shown has led bisexual women to be at a much higher risk of sexual and domestic violence than the majority of the population. I have also encountered people, in predominantly queer spaces, who assumed that my sexuality was wholly performative. My lack of total commitment to women as potential sexual partners caused me to be lumped in with stereotypes about young women who kiss and caress one another at college parties in order to excite men.
None of this is reasonable, but it colored much of my experience of what it meant to be categorized as bisexual. But in addition to being erased and fetishized, I was also faced with the reality that the word “bisexual” simply didn’t encompass the fullness of my identity. I am not simply attracted to both men and women.
I am attracted to women. I am attracted to men. But I am also attracted to people who identify as both and as neither.
“Bi” implies that my experience of sex and attraction factors out the varied identities of those who do not fall within this society’s narrow-minded spectrum of who we are and how we relate to our bodies, our attraction or lack of sexual attraction to others.
It is for this reason, amongst many others, that I must also lovingly disagree with those within LGBTQIA communities who believe that straight cis people should not use the word queer, even when referring to people and communities that have largely embraced the term.
Whether used in jest, affection or with disdain, some terms are the exclusive property of those most affected by them. But for some of us, the word “queer” — a term once meant to diminish anyone who wasn’t a beacon of heteronormativity — is now the means by which we easily and comfortably communicate the substance of who we are as sexual beings, or how we stand outside the realm of gender norms. That’s not to say that anyone should be comfortable with owning the term, if they prefer to be referred to otherwise (within or outside their own community), but that very sense of self-determination is at the heart of what I would ask of others: to be allowed to decide who I am, and how I want to be named in this world.
For many of us, using the word “queer” in an umbrella-like sense, to encapsulate the many ways that some of us do not fit into the terms that have been previously offered as containers for our complex identities, is a liberative act. There is freedom in our heightened ability to connect with others who have never felt at home with the other labeling options we’ve been handed. Rejecting the labels that do not reflect who we are allows us to build better and live better together, and for many of us, it is a well-established way of naming and being named. So to anyone who prefers that I never name your identity as “queer,” I am glad to respect your autonomy. I am open to negotiating our shared language and accommodating your personal preferences. And I expect the same in return. Because ultimately, I am living my life to get free, and I want you to be free too. But speaking for myself: I’m here, I’m queer, and while I’d like you to get used to it, yours isn’t the comfort level that truly matters.
I haven’t spent as much time creating content for this page lately. My apologies to those for whom this space matters. You matter to me too. I’m just doing what we all do — trying to balance organizing with a day job and a personal life, and often dropping the ball on all three in turn. But today, my head is buzzing with thoughts I only know how to express in verse, and this seems as right a place as any to home those words. So, for what it’s worth, these thoughts are my shout out to everyone who is kind enough to visit and revisit this page, who like me, struggles with the mechanics of their own mind.
I share these words, that I pounded into my keyboard this afternoon, humbly, as this is no longer my usual form of self expression, and with the knowledge that much greater poetic talent abounds in my community. Nonetheless, art sometimes exists for its own sake, and today, I needed to express my own awareness that we are all a tangle of the things we carry. I am feeling the weight of that tangle today, and I penned these words in an effort to lighten that load. I hope they will for me in the coming hours, and for some of you as well.
When The Past Won’t Pass
When the past won’t pass, it reinvents
Swerving across thick lines that we’ve traced over
To keep imagery contained
In the ever-fading here and now
A second-to-second space
on the brink of everything before and after
On expanses that extend beyond all cognition
We guard this second-long space, this now
In spite of its nature
We accelerate, changing lanes
to keep our eyes fixed forward
And yet we’re overtaken
By what we could have said
Or didn’t do
Or should have left alone
Because what was will kick down every door
And enter each new house
What was will spill from behind closet doors,
each time we glance inside
The past is thirsty
Unforgotten but untended
The field from which we rose
As life and death cycled in circles beside us
And we began to understand them both
And ourselves, in each moment
And even time itself
But we have stretched our bodies away
From crooked, tangled roots
From the dirt that holds them
For the sake of warmth
To bury the past in new circumstance
We strain towards light
In both life and death
Because without it, we know starvation will consume us
Like our unfed past
Our unfed selves
The people we used to be, who we would leave behind
In dark corners
Unable to make eye contact with ourselves
With what was
With what we used to be
We strive to avert a whole consciousness
to defy the laws of memory
and brain chemistry
Because at the end of each chapter
We were on our knees, hungry
Crawling across damp floors
with scraped skin
Whether in solitude or good company
We learned the ache of empty rooms
And that we could be no less lonely while entangled
With a hundred other spirits
With the noise of a thousand voices
We could be alone in crowded rooms
So we reinvented
But never escaped our own design
The past won’t pass
It renames itself
It renames us
But our old names had voices
And voices have echoes
In enclosed spaces
in open air
We are altered garments
The same notes in new rhythms
The same fear of the dark
Of what’s known and unknown
and forgotten with intention
The past pounds the hardwood to be heard
It asks loudly and softy and without abating:
Have you forgotten your own face?
The way you wore your hair?
The way you loved him
and hated yourself?
That the two were one and the same?
They way you wrote
and fucked and fed yourself?
The things you would have died and killed for?
Because it will not pass
You’ve been a hundred people
Living past lives in the same skin
And judging every inch of them
Like you would judge no friend or stranger
Because you survived their lives
Regretting and forgetting your way through daily re-writes
But in truth: you did not survive their lives
They’ve survived your life
So remember, for her
and for them:
there has never been a fair fight
in the whole history of time
And the currents of the universe
are a song streaming through your speakers
Exposition without intent
Your dialogue is your struggle
And all dialogue is, at best, negotiation
We are shaped by the intentional and the accidental
We are a collective
and a collage
Made of the same stuff
as falling leaves and falling stars
And our collisions
and forgotten Sundays
and misremembered Mondays
are “no less than the journey-work of the stars”
Your story is a shuffling constellation
As much as it is a weed
pushing its way between slabs of concrete
Fighting for light in a crowded field
As much as it is anything
But we move
Forward at times
With both chilled and warm breezes at our backs
The past will not pass
Even when tended
Even when tilled
But we can learn to change lanes
shifting between then and now
Because a broken lock can let the light in
And free your captive selves
Who don’t deserve to be caged or kept
in the recesses of regret
The past will not pass
But when we learn to walk
in and out
Of its mouth
Of its grip
Of all the places we’ve lived
And forgive the people we’ve been
Our lives weigh less
Every second retreats from the next
Every sea re-envelops itself
with every crash
And so do we
The past will not pass
But it can be read
with all the kindness you would otherwise extend
to a stranger
to a friend
and to the sea
This guest post from Support Ho(s)e, a coalition of Chicago sex workers and advocates, explains why those of us who believe in the rights of sex workers and the sanctity of self-defense must stand with Alisha Walker, a young woman who has been criminalized for taking a life in defense of her own. If you would like to learn more or get involved in the fight to free Alisha, you can visit the “Justice for Alisha Walker” Facebook page.
We recently became aware of an article published in the Chicago Sun-Times, originally titled “Hooker gets 15 years for stabbing Brother Rice teacher to death” (they have since amended the title), that promotes an anti-sex worker, misogynistic gloss on the traumatic events it purports to report on.
The Chicago Sun-Times not only saw fit to publish a piece that spread stigma and shame against a survivor of client violence, they also used degrading whorephobic language, and sensationalized headlines. The purpose of such dehumanization by the SunTimes was to mold Alisha Walker into a monster who deserved the harsh sentencing Judge Obbish handed down. This article, and others like it, hold up the client-victim as an upstanding citizen and member of his community, and demonize the woman who killed him in selfdefense.
Alisha Walker was working when she was attacked. Her attacker, Alan Filan, was a regular client who became aggressive, hostile, and demanded unsafe services while under the influence of alcohol. When Alisha refused, he escalated from threats to violence. As she felt her life at risk, Alisha fought back. For defending herself, and saving the life of another woman who was on the scene, she is facing 15 years behind bars.
As scary as this sounds, it is nothing new. The police, judges, and State’s Attorneys often pursue punishment that is meant to belittle, degrade and humiliate in order to deter others from “choosing a dangerous trade.” Our trade is only dangerous because we are criminalized and live in a society that is built on carceral “solutions” that ruin lives. These measures are designed to “teach a lesson,” this lesson however destroys lives. This case needs to be reframed. We are tired of this demonization and stigma. The events of this story are devastating, to all families involved, however Alisha’s work should not be what is on trial. Why aren’t we asking about the implications of having a Judge who has ties to the client-victim’s sister (who is also a judge) and lobbyist brother? We aren’t we asking why Alisha was held without bail or trial for two years? Why aren’t we willing to believe a woman when she is attacked? These questions confront the corruption and oppressive nature from which the criminal justice system is made.
That is why we, Support Ho(s)e, a coalition of Chicago sex workers and advocates, stand with Alisha Walker. And this is why we should all be standing with her, and others like her, who have been unfairly sentenced by a system that profits off of our incarceration, and disregards our humanity.
We are inspired by the work being done by organizations such as California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Free Marissa Now, Love & Protect, and Stand With NanHui, who have coined the hashtag #SurvivedAndPunished for campaigns and initiatives for survivors who are dealing with state violence for defending themselves against intimate partner violence, domestic attacks etc. From their vision statement, “The Survived And Punished Project demands the immediate release of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions, including: self-defense, “failure to protect,” migration, removing children from abusive people, being coerced into acting as an “accomplice,” and securing resources needed to live.” We want to expand upon this to include client-violence.
Because of the criminalized nature of most of our work, it is difficult to raise awareness, and rally to our cause. However, just because our work is considered unlawful does not mean that we are unworthy of human dignity, and protection as workers.
When we are subjected to violence, we are jokes, and when we survive we are punished. When our actions are reported, we are not deemed worthy of names, we are only “prostitutes, “hookers,” and other words that strip us of our humanity. We however are all human beings, and deserving of respect. Punishing us for striking back against the dangerous working conditions imposed upon us by our unfair criminalization is disgusting and unjust.
Our demands are rooted in the desire to see a better and more just world for sex workers involved in all facets of the trade. These demands are detailed as follows:
We want safe working conditions. This means we should have the right to live and work in peace. We also should have the right to self-defense if our lives are endangered.
We want an end to Judges like Obbish & Assistant State’s Attorneys like James Papa. This includes being held without bail, or without charge.We want rights not rescue. This means we want to see the decriminalization of our work, an end to police profiling and brutality. We also see a future in the formation of collective bargaining organizations, and unions for sex workers. We want self determination, and an end to criminalization.
We want justice for Alisha Walker. She should be free to live, work and decide what’s best for her and her body.
This is not a piece about the blockade that happened in Chicago today. That piece is coming, but it won’t come tonight. This post is plainly and simply a love note to my friends and co-strugglers — the people who always seem to show up for each other, brave the next barrier and devise creative solutions to complex problems. My mind is a dark place sometimes, and you all bring the light. And that matters more than I can say.
Anyone who was out there with us today, or following closely on twitter knows that the police were a little extra agitated with our blockade equipment this afternoon. Police and resistors function along a two-sided learning curve. We have learned from previous efforts that police had found weaknesses in some of our tactics, and exploited those weaknesses to move or extract people more quickly. Thus, creativity had to be brought to bear. Those who build and train and plan will always be crafting and re-imagining the means of their resistance, in order to challenge adversaries who wield great social, political and financial capital. Fortunately, such adversaries have a long history of being undone and outsmarted by those who have sought to bring them down.
In this society, oppressed people drive and create culture like none other. We create to define ourselves in a world that would reduce us to its stereotypes. We create to outwit what would kill us. We create to make the world beautiful when it is dark and cold. And sometimes, we create to build toward a completely different world than this one. That can be an ideological pursuit, or a reactionary act of self-defense, or in the case of transformative direct action, it can be both.
Those of you who endeavor to dream what a world beyond our oppressions looks like, while crafting a resistance that embodies transformation, are my people. And I love you. You are the ones who figure out how to build artful props and run shutdowns with dumpstered supplies. You are the ones who wake up early when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, and go to bed late because you schemed until after midnight with your mischievous friends. You’re the ones who raise the cash when it’s not flowing, who make the food when there’s no budget to order any, and the ones who surprise everyone with what you’re willing to deliver in a time of need. Whether that’s hosting two art parties in a week, to make sure an action tells a story, or just straight up running into traffic, so that someone else can do something that sounds even more absurd to the outside observer, this community of friends and strugglers delivers.
And we do get tired. We struggle with the stuff of our oppressions, the stuff of human consciousness and the frustrations of challenging a world that would often prefer to be left alone. We complain. Some of us drink. We swap stories of spite and angst, and we sometimes take comfort in places we know we shouldn’t. But when the march forward comes back around and another idea, solution or planning session is needed, those of you who have the time and strength that day will make it work.
What we don’t have within ourselves, we find in each other. We create together. And it sustains us.
And while it may seem a little daunting to consider that every time we build a better lockbox, the opposition will quickly learn its way around it, we shouldn’t feel troubled by such thoughts. Having to continually innovate to remain effective has long been the posture of the marginalized. The need for creativity and innovation puts the comfortable, not the struggler, at a disadvantage. Our imaginations are fierce and we arm them more heavily each time we move in the belief that we are not bound to this system’s stated inevitabilities. We need to feel strong in the knowledge that we create not only culture and community, but the means of our own resistance.
The creative force of our communities is a frightening thing to our oppressors. And as the kind of resistance we saw in the streets today continues to thrive and evolve, we will continue to prove that gentrifiers like Power Construction aren’t the only ones who can build things where they are not wanted.
So to everyone who stood in today’s blockade, or beside it, or who will be flexing everything they’ve got to carry movements forward in the coming week, I love and appreciate you. You get me out of bed in the morning and you keep my imagination strong.
So dream well, friends. The world needs your next adventure.
I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about electoral politics, but for someone who works in media, election 2016 debates are pretty much inescapable. In most election seasons, I find myself making very unpopular arguments that upset a lot of people — people who might otherwise be happy to march alongside me, most days of the year — so I usually try to sidestep such conversations, knowing that eventually, all roads will lead to Rome, or at least to where all mass movements for change are really bred: the streets.
But in this political moment, I find myself particularly frustrated, because for once, I can’t comprehend why the things I am saying would be upsetting to anyone remotely left of center.
To describe my participation in electoral politics as reluctant would be the understatement of 2016, but I nonetheless felt that enough was at stake that I went ahead and cast my vote for Bernie Sanders in my state’s primary. Between a proto-fascist, a neoliberal catastrophe, and a flawed would-be socialist, I chose the man who I don’t think would wreak absolute havoc on Black and Brown communities, both at home and abroad, and who just might improve access to essential services.
This is not an endorsement — just a quick note on harm reduction. Because what I have to address here is much more absurd than the worst of the Clinton vs. Sanders folderol.
It’s about a debate that I would typically expect from the right, but that some on the left are currently taking very seriously: the notion that Hillary Clinton is more dangerous than Donald Trump.
First: Hillary as the Literal Worst
Just in case you haven’t seen it said, trust me, it’s out there. The argument that Hillary’s track record on issues like mass incarceration, race relations, human rights and interventionism make her more of a threat to pretty much every vulnerable population than Trump, who has never held office and certainly has none of Clinton’s political savvy or finesse, has in fact been loudly asserted.
I get it. Hillary Clinton is the worst. But let’s be honest: she’s not the literal worst. She’s more of the same neoliberal bullshit we’ve been coping with for years, but there are in fact worse things, and we deny the reality and humanity of the vulnerable when we pretend that there aren’t. Yes, she may be more effective at organizing and implementing the havoc she would wreak, but at what point do we acknowledge that the power of the presidency isn’t the sum of one person’s abilities — or underlying wickedness?
Just as George W. had his Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys, so too would Donald Trump. The only difference is that Trump is starting from a place of promising full deportation for the undocumented, and supporting random acts of violence against women and Black people and a ban on all Muslim immigrants. Are full deportation and a ban on Muslim immigrants realistic aims? Probably not. But what could a man elected on such promises — a man with no sense of boundaries — accomplish, when surrounded by a team of clever jackals?
If you don’t think the answer is something much worse than what Clinton might do, I don’t trust your analysis or your judgment.
Yes, Trump is a performer, and he probably doesn’t believe much of what he says out loud. But once in office, why would we assume that this self-consumed actor would suddenly cease his performance, with the entire world as his stage? Why would we assume that, in the role of a lifetime, with nuclear weapons at his fingertips, and executive orders a mere pen stroke away, that he would suddenly hold back, while his rabid fan base cheered in the background? Trump may not have the faintest idea of how to be president, or have even set out to acquire the job, but he has succeeded in merging the spectacle of reality television with the circus of electoral politics. And within that conjured realm, with all its sound and fury, President Trump would have little incentive to break character. Because in the end, that character, and that performance, are all that he has.
I know that some of the “Trump is better than Hillary” arguments come from a place of wanting people to realize that we will never break the cycle of our oppressions by electing people like Clinton. It’s true. We won’t. And to be honest, I don’t know if I, as an Indigenous woman and a prison abolitionist, could ever pull a lever or check a box for her (and the Democratic Party should take note of such perspectives). But I am not going to pretend that I don’t find the drumbeat of fascism, with its already violent pep rallies, its promises of genocidal policies and its unapologetically racist ideas, doesn’t frighten me more. Trump has already breathed fresh oxygen into fires that the left has never quite managed to extinguish, and his apologists aren’t the ones who will be caught in the flames as that fire rages on.
Trump’s celebrity presence has provided a march route and a rhythm for those who have felt slighted and displaced by left-leaning social change. His popularity helped fashion the loose noise of hatred into a drumbeat. And just as that drumbeat has fueled his political victories, his victories have amplified the drumbeat.
And while I work alongside people who continue to present me with numbers assuring me that Trump’s campaign cannot succeed, I am reminded of how laughable his candidacy seemed to many at its inception. How many of us laughed? How many are laughing now? How could we possibly fault anyone for feeling terrified or believing that his trajectory simply cannot be clearly predicted?
I for one am not laughing, or assuming I can predict how far Trump might rise. The phenomenon that he has created terrifies me, because it is more than a man. It is a political moment.
Some have said that even if Bernie Sanders ultimately loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton, the Sanders campaign will still have helped to shape a new populist front that could continue to impact electoral politics for years to come. This is a comforting thought to many, and far less comforting when I imagine that the same could be true for Trump’s proto-fascism.
On Breaking Up With The Establishment At All Costs
The argument that what America needs now is a break from the establishment — even if that break means lifting up a man like Trump — is reminiscent of many arguments that have been made in years past, in the face of leaders that people should have known enough to fear. In the face of so much that is terrible, it’s easy to declare that anything else would be better. It’s easy to say that any interruption of the machine, such as it functions, would be a victory. But when that interruption is a voice loudly calling for racist, xenophobic terror, what are you really saying the world needs?
“Anything else” is not good enough. It may be easy, amid your frustration, to reverse the old adage and say that the devil you don’t know is better than the devil you do, but do we really not know this man? He has told us who he is, loudly and clearly, while promising great harm. He has promised violent policies and social regression. He has promised to lift up the voices of those who call for a return to the good old days, when protesters were more freely brutalized, and Black and Brown people were even more vulnerable to white violence, committed with impunity. He has told us. So why wouldn’t we believe him?
I have also heard some people invoke the old argument that people will never advocate for real change if they keep opting for “lesser evils,” and that Trump is better than Clinton precisely because things are bound to get worse under his reign. Such people believe that the protests a Trump presidency would inevitably bring — and the slew of political catastrophes that might well discredit the Republican Party — would ultimately be worth whatever is lost in the process.
Memo to the “it has to get worse before it can get better” crowd:
Read more history. There is no sustained correlation between deteriorating conditions and revolutionary resistance. People have suffered, do suffer and will suffer without striking back, every day, because having your life devastated by oppression does not magically imbue a person with the community, tactical analysis and culture of resistance that makes revolution possible. Do profound examples of people suddenly rallying when plunged into such circumstances exist? Of course. But the tendency of many radicals to fetishize this phenomenon, and reduce it to a formula (radical ideology + intensified suffering = revolution) is, in fact, counter-revolutionary.
Most movements with the power to displace popular oppressive constructs are fed, over time, by the development of shared ideas and tactics within affected communities. The reactions of the affected shape the course of conflict, but transformation requires cultivation. It is the act of standing with the community, as it responds to its oppression, that breeds revolution.
That is not to say that we should engage with our communities uncritically, or without offering our own input or analysis. But we must move beyond our adherence to ideological branding by acknowledging that we will build nothing by dismissing the suffering and oppression of others as some necessary step towards a full systems change.
Communities are where our will to fight is nurtured, where discipline is developed, and where love dictates how we negotiate with the struggles of today, while building toward the battles of tomorrow. This is where trust is built and revolutions are born. It is where we have to build, because without deep roots and firm foundations, we stand no chance in our battles with intractable enemies.
And when we’re hungry for a fight, we must remember that Assata Shakur taught us that we have much more than a “duty to fight” and a “duty to win.” We also have “a duty to love and support one another.”
But if your attitude is, “hey, at least if Trump gets elected, there will be revolt,” please remain seated. Because you are untrustworthy, and you have no concept of history.
Of course there were protests under Bush and Reagan, and people who long for the energy of an active fight appreciate such moments, but the dead are just as dead, are they not? How many millions? And how much harm did the successors of these men do, trying to bridge the gap between the absurdity of the right wing and the floating ideals of liberalism? And in the end, what gains were actually translated from the fact that the anti-war, anti-racist left was forced into an ongoing standoff with George W. Bush? A Black president who has deported more Brown people than any of his white predecessors?
The ascendancy of an extremist Republican president is no guarantee of the demise of the Republican party. If you take a good look at how far astray the right has gone, and how the Republican Party has consistently weathered the storm, you just might come to understand that hard swings to the right, no matter how absurd, do not mean the implosion of the Republican Party or the ascension of a more radical politic.
This is by no means an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who would likely continue Obama’s worst policies, or even intensify them. Even the Sanders campaign, which does not address the concerns of many, has been marked for destruction by the Democratic National Committee, because it was not created in the service of the elite.
This is not an endorsement of Sanders, as I don’t believe in electoral messiahs, and I do not believe that Bernie Sanders is a revolution.
But it is a wakeup call aimed at anyone who doesn’t have enough sense to understand that this march towards fascism, towards millions more dead, towards mass deportations and the abandonment of those who’ve already been brutalized and displaced by our systems of violence, is a tragedy of epic proportions. Arguing that “at least” it will generate more street protests is akin to arguing that there’s an upside to the death and suffering that may await millions of people (who probably don’t look like you) because it will lead to great late-night comedy. In short, if you would say this, then you do not care about the lives that will be ended, and destroyed, en masse because of a Trump presidency.
On Being Harsh About This
If these words may seem harsh, it’s because they are meant to be. They are meant to be a balled fist in the face of anyone for whom they are applicable, because your fantasies of revolutionary lightning hitting the right spot during dark days deserve interruption.
Those who bear the brunt of bad policy, and worse policy, will always have to negotiate with it. For those who will not live in such a state of negotiation, for those who will not lose their lives, their freedom, or the contents of their cupboards if the worst comes to pass, some reverence is in order. You do not have to pledge allegiance to a candidate you don’t believe in, but you can reject that candidate while having some respect for what each of these electoral outcomes will mean for people in the margins. You can acknowledge that there is in fact a difference between bad and worse, and that not everyone who opposes Donald Trump has been hoodwinked by party politics. Their fears are grounded in reality and should be respected as such.
The ties that bind us together in struggle will not be formed by writing off mass murder, displacement and the popularization of hatred. And while pushing back against the further loss of liberty may give you more to do in the streets, it is not, in of itself, social progress for the oppressed.
But above all, if you think Brown, Black and poor people, and refugees, are just going to have to suffer and die in large numbers, as fascists cheer, in the march toward your political vision, how are you any better than what’s currently being offered? Like Trump, you are treating others as expendable while insisting upon your own desired ends.
If you can disregard outright promises of our destruction, why would those of us living in those margins ever trust you — or your “vision” of a better world? If you don’t see the value in mitigating our suffering, so we can live and grow and build, why would I trust what you seek to create? And if you think our desperation is the fuel you need to power change, fuck you. Fuck you for not caring if we live or die. Fuck you for putting your ideology above our humanity. And fuck you for not understanding that organizing is about building relationships, not cultivating despair.