As two people actively involved in movements for social justice, we are constantly discussing and critiquing what we see happening in the name of “changing the world”. Having resided in DC for several years, though not originally “from” the city, we have a particular perspective on the current culture of the mass mobilization for social change. Additionally, as two individuals living at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, and more we struggle to understand what paths can be charted to a future that will liberate every part of us.
“No more handcuffs – Enough!
No more stereotypes – Enough!
No more miseducation – Enough!
No more gentrification – Enough!”
-- Head-Roc, local DC hip-hop artist
If you have ever heard those lyrics, and you live in DC, then you will understand the frustration and urgency that will echo throughout this article. For many people who don’t live in the District, when they think of DC, they are really thinking about Washington. Washington is the place where the president sometimes lives, where Congress makes decisions about our lives, where museums are free, and sterile government buildings declare downtown as their home. But DC is where life is. DC is colored, full of tension, conflicted. It is neglected and loved. It is resisting and conforming all at the same time. That is the DC we know and struggle with. However as national protests increase in this city, it seems that instead of the plight of DC coming to the limelight, it is rendered even more invisible. Instead Washington DC becomes a site of protest, a tourist attraction, and the residents of this schizophrenic city are a backdrop in a perpetual political drama.
In our attempt to understand what it means to live here, we are constantly questioning our role in movements towards social justice. From watching gentrification condos being built outside our window, and throughout the city, to intervening in a domestic violence situation on the street in front of our house (and the ensuing interaction with police)– we are in a position of both acting, and acted upon. Knowing that simple solutions to these problems are not available, we also recognize that, in complex ways, we play a role in contributing to the problems that effect us and others. This ranges from being a part of the process that prepares neighborhoods for gentrification, to working for the non-profits that we critique. In this way, we are simultaneously resisting while also conforming. This leads us to another aspect of social change that we are both highly critical of, and also at times working for: mass protests.
As one of the main tools that is used in this country to address the government, street protest needs to be critically analyzed beyond an evaluation after each demonstration, with participants debating whether it was boring, dynamic, inspiring, or whatever. Some of the questions that we ask instead are: What does it mean that organizers are compelled to use so much of their resources, in the name of social justice, to bus in people from across the U.S. and abroad, while half a million people here, a majority of them the most disenfranchised in the country, continue to be ignored? Does it make sense that the majority of people that travel to DC to “let their dissent be heard” are white, when the majority that lives in the city where they are protesting are people of color? And most importantly, what’s the point? This is not to say that mass mobilizations are inherently pointless, rather, what is the larger strategic framework that they happen within, and also who makes the decisions about such frameworks and placing big protests as the priority? The many anti-globalization protests organized by the Mobilization for Global Justice exhibit this tendency, bringing thousands of protesters from around the country to demonstrate in downtown while not tapping the enormous resentment in the city towards the disenfranchisement of DC. Similarly, the March for Women’s Lives in 2004 boasted of putting close to a million people on the streets, but again, the vast majority were white women, and even women organizers of color expressed dismay at the failure to better include them and their communities in the organizing and messaging. DC has some of the worst indicators of reproductive health, from HIV and STD rates to high infant mortality, yet, black women from DC were never central to the demonstration.
Ironically, many of the organizers and “leaders” of these events ask the same question “why aren't there more black people here, they should care about this issue!" or “how do we get more people of color?” Clearly there is a difference in how this issue is addressed, and we’d like to suggest that the problem lies less with “black people not caring” and more with the priorities, messages and outreach strategies deployed by those organizers. Reliance on the internet (as if a vast majority of people have regular access to it) and posters pasted haphazardly on light posts don’t count as grassroots organizing.
In imagery and rhetoric, people in the global south are being used as the poster children to justify these mass mobilizations. Organizers of mostly white organizations say that they support marginalized people, but those people themselves are not centrally involved in the organizing. So when you go to an anti-war march, you see Middle-eastern women and children propped up on poster board. When you go to an anti-globalization protest, you see the images of anguished faces of South and Central American families facing death squads. Perhaps when you walk down your street and see an advertisement for these protests, the ad has animated pictures of young folks of color holding paintbrushes set against a backdrop of phrases such as “We want our water back.” The implication here is that they have painted the slogans, graffiti style, in an act of resistance. But did they really? Or did someone use Photoshop to place the paintbrush in their hands and paste them against the white background with the words? Could there be a more classic case of white folks putting words in other peoples’ mouths?
So this is when we begin our talk about privilege, because attending mass mobilizations as the main form of resistance is a privilege. And it makes us wonder if people with certain privileges can cause that much change? That topic would be a whole essay into itself, but we feel it is important to question the assumption that people with a high level of privilege are actually capable of giving most or all of it up for others, whom they may have a very tenuous connection to. Though that line of thought is very intriguing to us, we leave it for another time, and continue to consider the ways some are addressing their privilege. For more than five years, there’s been a lot of talk about addressing privilege in “progressive organizations.” With the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, and the messianic language used to discuss it as the most important moment for social justice, came a simultaneous chorus of critique, perhaps best summed up by Elizabeth Martinez’s essay “Where was the color in Seattle?” While many people no doubt reacted to these criticisms with earnest attempts to confront their own issues, many others jumped onto the bandwagon of anti-oppression in order to deflect the critique of their organizing methods, rather than truly deal with the ways they were reenacting oppressive behaviors. Soon, anti-oppression trainings became the “in” thing to do. One example of this is the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) which has had anti-racism and other anti-oppression workshops for the past several years, yet continues to organize and conduct outreach in the same way. The result is continuing to create a space of mostly white, middle and upper class, participants, and such changes as recruiting more people of color and other marginalized presenters recreate dynamics of the “oppressed” educating the “oppressor.” Calling yourself anti-racist and being able to talk about white skin privilege has become trendy in the anti-globalization and later anti-war circles of the US and Canada. This movement to address privilege ends up being very narcissistic.
We are not saying that anti-oppression work is not important, but the focus on feelings and experiences of people with privilege once again puts them at the center, marginalizing those who are already “oppressed.” And although usually there is a disclaimer against increasing guilt, that emotion figures prominently in these discussions, which only contributes to the dynamic of privileged people being politically active out of guilt, rather than out of a true sense of solidarity or willingness to lose their own privilege. There’s also a lack of attempts to personalize the anti-oppression work –someone may go to these anti-oppression trainings and discussions, but at the end of the day, almost all of their personal interactions with friends in social circles, where they live, are homogenous, like themselves. The point is not that straight folks should go “find some gay friends,” but to question what people consider as “natural” about their social environment. In fact, that environment is created, and such “anti-oppression” concepts should be intrinsic to that creation. We are also mindful that, although sometimes having white people teach each other about racism is helpful, anti-oppression work too often forces “the oppressed” to neglect themselves and their own needs in order to focus on others who need to be checked for their privilege or educated about anti-oppression issues.
Lastly, there is this idea that once someone pronounces themselves “anti-racist” then they assume that they are an ally of people without their privileges, immune from critique. Even if they take criticism in a positive guilt-free manner, they too often neglect to see that they are part of a whole racist system. An example of this comes from our experience at the protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC. A critical mass bike ride of several hundred, and its large police escort, ended at a church where an immigrant workers’ rally was being held. As the rally ended, many immigrant workers and their families were unable to leave the church for fear of being detained by the police now on the streets outside. Even though many of the bike riders would no doubt consider themselves allies to the immigrant workers that were there, the fact that they didn’t consider how their actions would impact that specific group of people made their “solidarity” dangerous. These people need to look at how they benefit from the system, whether they want to or not, and then start to understand how to dismantle it.
Through these sorts of considerations of what it means to dismantle the systems of oppression, we’ve come to be very wary of “no compromise” or “no reform ideology”. If you have privilege its very easy to say " only revolution, no reform"– you can always fall back on the cushion of privilege regardless of how little changes. An individual or group may take a very principled stand against the government refusing to work through those channels, but whether or not a bill funding HIV services passes will have a very real effect on many people in our communities. It would also impact the ability to “organize a revolution” because of how it would effect both those already politically active, as well as others who could become involved.
Part of the problem with a simplistic “reform or revolution” way of thinking is that it can’t address real life situations. Recently we found ourselves having to deal with a situation of domestic violence. A drunken man was abusing his girlfriend, and a group of us attempted to take action to stop him. We were unable, and two of our friends were hurt in the process. This resulted in the police arriving. For us this was a very conflicted moment as the scene that unfolded reminded us of the cyclical violence that the prison-industrial complex inflicts. While in police custody on the site, this immigrant man was harassed by the cops– this same man who earlier had assaulted his girlfriend and our friends. No revolution or no reform was going to happen at that moment to solve this problem. Later we discussed the importance of having laws that hold police accountable and preserve the rights of incarcerated immigrants- while at the same time working to dismantle the whole criminal justice system.
Another example is the case of the Queer Fist Kiss-In during the 2004 RNC
protests. Queer Fist decided to take a non-confrontational approach towards
the police presence at their demo by just trying to avoid them. They didn’t
want to give the police cause to break up the demo, which would assumedly
result in arrests. Some non-Queer Fist (presumably straight) anarchist and
activist types joined the action but refused to work within the guidelines
established by Queer Fist. They created a confrontation with the police,
resulting in the arrests of many people who were specifically trying to avoid
arrest. By taking the more “revolutionary” position, and refusing
to cooperate with “reformist” strategies to avoid arrest, these
activists endangered others whom they imagined that they were in solidarity
The flip side to this is the total focus on reform without a revolutionary framework– a scenario we see too often here in DC, the land of non-profit organizations. Most social justice non-profits are based here. Their mission statements usually say they are working for the rights of poor folks and people of color, but most are led by and employ people who, in thier day to day lives, betray this mission. Living in DC, we see how this non-profit class is part of the population who is gentrifying this city– displacing poor people and peoples of color, as they socialize within their hegemonic/homogenous circles. These are the same folks that end up speaking in the name of people that they themselves are continuing to marginalize. In many of DC’s HIV service organizations the lowest paid positions go to folks who do the street level outreach. Folks who are representative of the community usually do this critical, yet low paid work, usually. But how many of the executive directors are white? And how few of these better paying positions are being held by people of color in communities of color? Are any of these organizations pro-actively supporting “low-skill” workers from the community in getting more advanced education, so they can take over the programs that serve their communities? This again is a case of using more marginalized people for imagery and as props, while maintaining more privileged folks in positions of power.
With all this critique, we get tired of talking about white people or people with class privilege. We want to talk with others who are in similar situations as us. We often ask ourselves how can we do that? But then we trip over privilege again and questions surface about distribution of resources and who is able to control the debate and be heard. As we try to exert control over our own bodies figuring out where to put our energies– we are forced to recognize that certain groups that claim to speak for us are not accountable to our communities. One example is the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the self-described largest LGBT organization in the US, with headquarters in DC. Not only are they not accountable to the most effected communities (for example, there’s not a single trans-person on their board) but also they dominate the public debate in such a way that inhibits the efforts of other GLBT people who might want to organize around other issues. The HRC put so much money into fighting for gay marriage during the last elections, but got their asses kicked by social conservatives & the religious right. For us, a better use of resources would have been to put some of those millions of dollars into education campaigns, information in schools, youth clubs and senior homes. Every classroom that has the opportunity to deal with queer issues in a serious way will not only end up educating folks so that they're not acting out of ignorance, but will also create an opportunity to connect with some gay kids in the room- once again, giving people power over their lives. None of this is possible while the HRC exercises such domination over the queer political movement.
Why is leadership of these organizations so distant from the needs of the people they claim to serve? For those in power, whether at an organization like the HRC or more generally in society, changing their ways of doing work would jeopardize their status and income. The people in power don't have anything to gain by taking on the system of privilege in DC and around the country. They may say that we’re part of the same movement, working for the same goals, but who sets those goals and priorities? It is rare that it is those who are facing the violence themselves.
Maybe there is still a question in your mind as to how do we address those needs. You might say that at least these marches or national campaigns produce a dialogue between the aggrieved and the public at large. At least the organizations place a light on many issues of injustice. Our thought is that a lot of the people that comprise these organizations and/or go to these marches (that may include you) are our enemies because of the barriers they present to new kinds of change– the limitations they create to what is possible. Because they define it, the dialogue is nonexistent. Marches, lobbying, voting have their role, but groups get very caught up on these stale methodologies– from the Human Rights Campaign to the Mobilization for Global Justice to the March for Women’s Lives. When you're relying on just one or two large-scale ways of making change or being active, rather than encouraging a multitude, there is a problem.
For us, new change-making strategies center on education and empowerment. By saying education and empowerment, we mean not only teaching people media skills, but building understanding of the history of their communities relationship to self-representation; not only having people test their own water and air samples for pollution, but also demystifying how the chemical industry works; not only building coalitions to stop a publicly funded baseball stadium, but also connecting that fight to larger struggles against gentrification and bad government spending priorities. Speaking to our neighbors, harnessing the momentum of everyday life, working for community empowerment. Our vision includes an ultimate redistribution of resources, and in the short term we want people to share their skills. By education, we don’t mean just giving out information. If it's done in that way, it won't matter as much. We all can learn from some amazing projects that are doing this work all the time. The DC Radio Coop (that we are both a part of) and Third World Majority (in Oakland, California) both teach media skills to members of marginalized communities while also fostering a greater analysis about media justice, This form of media activism promotes leadership of the most effected as it promotes engagement with issues and access to knowledge and power. Just telling someone that so-called “radical news” is more relevant than the Washington Post isn’t effective, but being involved in their daily lives will be. Empowerment means actually giving someone power over something in their own life, as opposed to some “feel good” activism that assuages a privileged person’s guilt.
One thing we are constantly aware of is that the rapid pace of change makes it dangerous to continue to use outmoded frameworks for social justice. Positive change is not going to come from the large non-profits, but from people who still can’t find steady work after several years, people who wherever they go, won't find a stable place to live, people on the frontlines of these struggles. And there are a number of examples where the most affected people are making change in the US that exemplify (though imperfect) new strategies and paths to social justice. As much as entrenched “social change” institutions obstruct these new possibilities, if people keep pushing those who say they are allies (essentially those with power) then we will be moving to a better place.
An example of change happening from below is the AFL-CIO, where there are really interesting things taking place with farm workers, hotel workers and janitors. Outside of the traditional labor movement, other groups are showing new ways of organizing around multiple issues like workers’ centers and non-union worker organizing campaigns. A local example is the Workers Committee of Woodbridge that is organizing, educating and advocating for immigrant and undocumented day laborers– with them at the leadership. A more famous example is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who successfully pressured Taco Bell to support their demands for improved working conditions for tomato pickers in southern Florida.
Yet another example comes from groups working against the prison-industrial complex. Justice for DC Youth, a youth-led organization in DC,, is promoting youth leadership to stop the criminalization of youth by opposing legislation and demanding change in current practices. Others in Louisiana, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, have succeeded in changing a youth detention facility to a job-training center. At least one national organization working to stop domestic violence against women of color (INCITE) is supporting local organizing while making connections to war, discrimination, prisons, reproductive rights and more.
These examples show that working for social change is more than just selling ideas to the “general public,” it is empowering people to take control of their life and hold each other accountable, while constantly improving the condition of life so people can survive to organize. Talking about diversity without checking yourself continues the narcissism of the movement. It is self-indulgent to continue saying that we’re for justice just because we are claiming to bring alternatives to the mainstream. What we’ve learned living in DC is the need to learn from other communities as well as our own, and that we need support as much as we need to give it. We’ve learned living at the epicenter of so much violence, that the interactions in our personal lives are just as important as the way we organize.