Monday, June 28, 2010

I am an activist

I am an activist.

I am a proud, active, social justice activist who fights, day in and day out, for a more just society. I am deeply invested in anti-oppressive politics and am passionate about educating as many people as possible.

Because of all this, I have clearly had a very, very busy weekend. The G8/G20 has forced me to once again re-evaluate my politics, my tactics and quite frankly, my allies.

A few things first:

- I chose not to attend the G8/G20 demonstrations. I make this distinction because I believe there is a clear difference between people like myself who chose not to participate in such events and those who want to attend them but cannot.

- I am highly privileged and could afford to get arrested without enduring serious harm to my physical or political self. In fact, in many of the activist circles I run in, getting arrested would actually give me some serious cred.

Like every annoying intellect worth their salt, I have more questions than answers when it comes to Gs activism but at least I'm honest about not knowing it all.

First confession: I used to be unequivocally opposed to violent protesting and thought that anyone who refuses to show their face during a protest was a coward who was unworthy of the activist title.

Then I listened to Harsha Walia speak about the diversity of tactics. You should, too. You should also note, however, that after her amazing talk about the importance of all types of activism for all issues, the camera pulls back and you see that she is wearing Nike shoes. This should also be discussed.

I agree with Harsha and the principle of a diversity of tactics. I firmly, firmly believe that diversifying tactics is the only way that change will occur. I also now understand the politics of the "Black Block" and those who engage in Block like tactics.

Black Block et al, take note: The revolution will not happen from a burning cop car. Nor will it come from the shouts of "Fuck the police" or the shattering of bank windows (more on this later).

Nor will it happen from letter writing or lobbying alone. Not only is bureaucracy light years behind civilization, even decent, well timed laws or policies cannot single handily change the minds of individuals and create great change.

Change will happen when the grassroots meet the Ivory Tower and people below and above are speaking the same language.

The issues must be attacked from all sides at all times so that different people, with different approaches and different perspectives, are all receiving the same message.

Womyn have achieved a certain level of equity in society not because we fought for the right to vote. Nor is it because of conscious raising groups. It took both. It took womyn on the ground, building solidarity, educating our brothers and sisters about the reality of our lives and it took policies and laws that allowed us to be represented and created opportunities for retribution when our personhood was ignored.

And so my use of lobbying techniques for the G8/G20 go hand-in-hand with those who took to the streets over the weekend, said "Whose streets? Our streets!" and held their placards high.

Second confession: I am not a communist nor do I believe in anarchy. But I am not a pacifist. (I'm also not a terrorist).

I think police are a necessary evil, much like taxes and fluoride toothpaste. I think shouting "pigs" and vandalising stores/banks is short sighted and ineffective.

In the case of the police, good old Rex Murphy made the unfortunate comment that the #1 ally of the Black Block is Stephen Harper, and I believe him. The Black Block and the violent protesters over the weekend simply worked to justify the excessive police state at the Gs (and it was excessive. More arrests this weekend than during the entire FLQ crisis!)

When I speak of violence, I do not, in any way, shape or form include those who used violence in self-defense, in an attempt to protect their friends/allies or as a means of survival when being unlawfully attacked. As I said, I am not a pacifist.

But the BB knows full well that they get plenty of media attention, which was reflected in an iconic photograph (that I, of course, can no longer find... But I'm working on it!) where a member of the Black Block is charging a Starbucks window, staring at camera crews who number in the dozens. It has been argued that this is the point - drawing attention to the issues and forcing people to witness what violence against society looks like.

But what about those who protested with their faces shown, who engaged in the 'critical mass' bike ride or who marched with tambourines and placards? The irony, of course, is that many people who support the Black Block tactics also posted to various articles saying "What the media ignored: 25, 000 peaceful protesters". But many of them ignored it themselves.

Whether you are an activist or a member of the media (or the elite!), we must all acknowledge the 25,000+ protesters who came out en masse, in solidarity and chanted for queer rights, womyn's rights, animal rights, civilian liberties, etc.

I monitor the CBC quite heavily, either radio, internet or television, because quite frankly, my taxes pay for that shit. And as much as I love to hate on the media for their ignorance or selective listening, they have been quite excellent at giving voice to the protesters who came out with serious issues and clear messages. This is reflected in their photo galleries, for example, which gave room for images of protesters and their messages. And not simply pictures of them being arrested.

(Of course, I would argue that much of the press around the security state is because so many journalists were unlawfully detained and so like most people, when one of their own is affected, they take notice.)

All of which to say that insisting that violence demonstrations are necessary to get the message out has been proven false.

Why do I think vandalising stores and banks is ineffective?

Just look at BP. BP has created one of the, if not the, worst oil disaster in history. BP is evil, evil, evil. But independent retailers who carry the BP name are being hit really, damn, hard. Of course, their entire livelihood is built upon the exploitation of mother nature and so one could certainly argue that they are a liability in the fight against oil. Sure. But do you think the individual people who work there are concerned about that right now?

Individual workers at gas stations have had their hours cut or are being laid off because people are boycotting BP for its disaster.

I support the boycotting of BP but I also can't ignore those that are suffering from that. (And let's not pretend that people who pump the gas at the station are rolling in dough, either).

The same goes with the Starbucks and other stores in Toronto. First off, not only major corporations were hit. There is plenty of footage of people vandalising things like local antique stores, so there's that issue.

But let's take Starbucks.

Starbucks is indeed a ubiquitous, yuppie extravaganza that charges a fortune for a fancy coffee. Starbucks is a clear target. Yes, nobody was hurt and a window pane has no feelings. Many, many more people are affected by a brutal police force, violence from the state, state-waged war, etc. Abso-fucking-lutely.

But how can you claim to be fighting for the little guy/gal when you're destroying their store front and therefore keeping them away from their job? Do you think 'barristas' make enough money that they can afford time off work without pay? Most barristas I know are students or lower-class people working for tips.

What about those that were not directly affected by the vandalism but whose customers were scared away by the violence and didn't show up?

We can hate on capitalism all we want and there are great arguments for doing so, but that doesn't change right now. Right now, people are relying on 'capialist pig' jobs to pay their rent, to finance their education, to feed their children.

Hell, how many activists do we all know who stick it to the Man while bagging groceries, selling coffee or stocking shelves?

A diversity of tactics is necessary but so is the respect and understanding of those who do not agree with violence as a method of resistance. As activists, we need to understand that many people cannot engage in violent resistance, even if they want to. Deportation, state scooping up of children, lack of employment opportunities, inaccessibility, etc are all realities for many activists. To assume that only those who knowingly risk arrest are 'legitimate' activists is short sighted and detrimental to the movement. People use various tactics for various reasons and respect needs to go in every direction.

Personally? I choose not to participate in events or forms of resistance that could lead to arrest because much of the work I do requires a clean police check. I'm not being boastful when I say that I do excellent work with children and I could not do that work if I have been arrested. I could argue with my activist friends about the merits of a record of civil disobedience but it would automatically close many doors for me in the work that I do.

I may by highly privileged but I am also able to use that privilege and education to move others to action because I do not engage in violent resistance. This is a choice that I choose, without constraint, to make.

I do not expect this to be every one's politics but I suppose my hope is that others take these politics into account in their own work. I recognize direct action and hope that direct action recognizes my seemingly 'pacifist' methods.

Real change, as I said, will come when the top meets the bottom. I recently heard the term 'movable middle' to describe the vast majority of Canadians who are 'sitting on the fence' and can be moved to either side. These are the people that I actively pursue. These are the people that I think hold the key to the future.

I am not one of these people. I am firm in my beliefs, militant even, and I cannot be persuaded to be anti-choice, anti-immigration, etc. But I can work really, damn, hard to reach those that can be persuaded.

And in my experience, I am able to reach those people because I engage in tactics that are accessible, lack intimidation and take into account their experiences and perspectives.

My work alone will not accomplish much. I need bureaucrats and the Black Block on my side, too.

Lastly (I told you I've had to do a lot of thinking), as activists, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the state wins when we fight amongst each other. It's an age old tactic of the privileged to get the oppressed fighting amongst themselves so that they don't fight them.

My one hope is that the debates amongst activist circles right now remain dialogues and that they serve to strengthen us and not divide us.

While we're attacking each other (and windows), the oppressors carry on.

12 comments:

Feminist Catalyst said...

I felt I was going on far too long, but I wanted to include the reality that as a support worker, I was asked to attend the G8/G20 demonstrations to provide sexual assault support work to demonstrators.

This is important because the sexual assault would NOT only be coming from police, but also from other demonstrators.

I think this is important for people to know that even activist circles are not always safe places for womyn.

Debbie said...

Hey, I thought this was fabulous. I didn't attend the protests, both out of choice and disability related issues (crowds are tough for me, arrest is not an option for me either).
I believe in a diversity of tactics to an extent. I don't agree with smashing windows, lighting police cars on fire, etc., because it is used by the police and the government to justify their ridiculous over-response. I expect that footage of these incidents will be trotted out by the police for the next 10+ years to justify a huge presence and brutal tactics at big protests.
I also think that these acts are a strategic mistake. I disagree with portraying vandalism as violent, or otherwise collapsing property damage with violence against people. But people are frightened and angry that this happened in their city, and I get that. I am more frightened and angry about the way the police behaved, but I cannot figure out what people hoped to accomplish besides alienating a lot of people who otherwise agree with them on a lot of issues.

Anyway, I am glad that you wrote this.

One quick question - what did you mean with the comment about the Nike shoes? I'm curious, because I read it as a condemnation, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Feminist Catalyst said...

Debbie,

Thanks for your comments. Hear hear!

As for her Nikes, it's not so much a condemnation as an observation. I have never met or spoken to her, so I haven't given her an opportunity to explain that, but I think it is worthy of note.

Reminds me of the Seattle demonstrations when people were kicking in store windows, while wearing Nike shoes.

Unless there's some sort of political reasoning behind it, I do think it's hypocritical. However, like I said, I don't know her personally and have never heard her speak of it.

Debbie said...

I just wonder how we're all supposed to avoid these things. I try to avoid wearing things with prominent brand labels, but it's pretty impossible when it comes to things like running shoes. I am curious because I do notice a tendency within activist communities to police each other about things like this, and I wonder why it happens/why its necessary.

This is really not directed at you in particular, and is most definitely a derail from your OP. I'm kind of deprived of political conversation with people who share my values, so I'm seeking it out wherever I can find it.

Aiyee. said...

this was a great post. you brought up a lot of interesting points - i especially about the workers of starbucks!
i have that same thought myself, a lot of the time. we are born into hypocrisy: resisting capitalism and being forced to engage in it just by nature of our system.
also loved the point that the state wins when there is disunity among activists.
it's so true.

Aiyee. said...

i meant to say, too, it reminds me of something naomi klein said at the council of canadians forum two days ago: "there is nothing more surprising than solidarity."

it's so true.

Feminist Catalyst said...

Debbie,

I agree that it's really, really hard to do. And you're right, it is certainly a form of policing and that isn't necessarily great. But I think it can be productive to constantly be challenging each other.

I guess in her case, she is someone who is speaking out against migrant labour and then wearing brand new shiny Nikes. Like I said, I don't know if there's context I'm just not aware of but I do think it's worth noting.

How do avoid it? It obviously isn't easy, but for those who have access to the money, there are great, sweatshop-free, recycled fabric clothing and footwear options. For others, there's also second hand stores where we're at least reducing the load of land fills.

I'm not saying it's easy or even that I'm immune because Goddess knows, I'm definitely not. I'm a sucker for a pretty purse and a pair of stilettos.

P.S I don't think it's a derail. My bigger point in the post was about activism and tactics and this really speaks to the so-called activist community and the standards to which we hold ourselves up to.

Anonymous said...

You said:
And in my experience, I am able to reach those people because I engage in tactics that are accessible, lack intimidation and take into account their experiences and perspectives.
====

Lobbying and letter writing and organising rallies, and whatever other so-called nonviolent tactics you engage in, may not be accessible to all people. It may not take into account the experiences of people who are extremely marginalized, cannot wait for your rallies to work out, who are angry and need to resist and express their anger. Example - some of the palestinian resistance that is characterised as terrorism.

Also, there is an underlying assumption here and other places that there are people who engage in nonviolent tactics and then there are people who engage in black bloc tactics. First, rallies, letter writing, lobbying can be violent in that depending on how they are organised, they may reproduce violence, such as ableism, sexism, racism. Black bloc tactics are not necessarily or inherently violent, if we can agree that violence = oppression. Second, there are people who do letter writing, organise rallies, lobby the government, and engage in black bloc tactics. It is not either or for many individuals!

I also appreciate the thought and time you have put into this discussion, and I am only raising these questions to further that process a bit. :)

Feminist Catalyst said...

Anonymous poster,

Thanks for your comment.

I think it's a much easier argument to make that the Black Bloc (Freakin' Blogger kept changing it to a "k" at the end. Conspiracy?!) Anyway... I think it's a lot easier to argue that the Black Bloc is violent than letter writing or other means or protest. And truthfully, BB members and defenders that I know, insist that violent resistance is an inherent part of BB tactics.

Either way, I don't think it's either/or in the BB or letter writing department; that was my point. The G8/G20 has highlighted a major flaw in most social justice circles: an us/them mentality. In this case, it was a "direct action vs. bureaucracy" approach where those who did NOT attend the G8/G20 were seen as lesser-than-activists.

As I stated, lobbying is not successful without other tactics, but similarly, BB alone will not accomplish much either.

We need all forms of activism, all the time, in order to move the issues forward.

I have two major hopes:

1- That we don't lose sight of the bigger picture: Yes, police brutality is a serious issue but it was a serious issue LONG before the G8/G20. (Justice for Junior anyone? http://www.rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2010/05/best-net/march-justice-junior-tubz-manon) And most prisons are not half as safe as the ones during the GGs. So let's have THOSE conversations.

2- That we, as activists, use this opportunity to build solidarity, do some internal assessments and move forward together.

I want EVERY protest to be jampacked and not simply those of late. A recent vigil for the murder of 3 Ottawa womyn didn't get nearly as much attention as the "Police Brutality" protests when we should KNOW that these issues are so closely linked.

Feminist Catalyst said...

Anonymous poster,

Thanks for your comment.

I think it's a much easier argument to make that the Black Bloc (Freakin' Blogger kept changing it to a "k" at the end. Conspiracy?!) Anyway... I think it's a lot easier to argue that the Black Bloc is violent than letter writing or other means or protest. And truthfully, BB members and defenders that I know, insist that violent resistance is an inherent part of BB tactics.

Either way, I don't think it's either/or in the BB or letter writing department; that was my point. The G8/G20 has highlighted a major flaw in most social justice circles: an us/them mentality. In this case, it was a "direct action vs. bureaucracy" approach where those who did NOT attend the G8/G20 were seen as lesser-than-activists.

As I stated, lobbying is not successful without other tactics, but similarly, BB alone will not accomplish much either.

We need all forms of activism, all the time, in order to move the issues forward.

I have two major hopes:

1- That we don't lose sight of the bigger picture: Yes, police brutality is a serious issue but it was a serious issue LONG before the G8/G20. (Justice for Junior anyone? http://www.rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2010/05/best-net/march-justice-junior-tubz-manon) And most prisons are not half as safe as the ones during the GGs. So let's have THOSE conversations.

2- That we, as activists, use this opportunity to build solidarity, do some internal assessments and move forward together.

I want EVERY protest to be jampacked and not simply those of late. A recent vigil for the murder of 3 Ottawa womyn didn't get nearly as much attention as the "Police Brutality" protests when we should KNOW that these issues are so closely linked.

Feminist Catalyst said...

Anonymous poster,

Thanks for your comment.

I think it's a much easier argument to make that the Black Bloc (Freakin' Blogger kept changing it to a "k" at the end. Conspiracy?!) Anyway... I think it's a lot easier to argue that the Black Bloc is violent than letter writing or other means or protest. And truthfully, BB members and defenders that I know, insist that violent resistance is an inherent part of BB tactics.

Either way, I don't think it's either/or in the BB or letter writing department; that was my point. The G8/G20 has highlighted a major flaw in most social justice circles: an us/them mentality. In this case, it was a "direct action vs. bureaucracy" approach where those who did NOT attend the G8/G20 were seen as lesser-than-activists.

As I stated, lobbying is not successful without other tactics, but similarly, BB alone will not accomplish much either.

We need all forms of activism, all the time, in order to move the issues forward.

I have two major hopes:

1- That we don't lose sight of the bigger picture: Yes, police brutality is a serious issue but it was a serious issue LONG before the G8/G20. (Justice for Junior anyone? http://www.rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2010/05/best-net/march-justice-junior-tubz-manon) And most prisons are not half as safe as the ones during the GGs. So let's have THOSE conversations.

2- That we, as activists, use this opportunity to build solidarity, do some internal assessments and move forward together.

I want EVERY protest to be jampacked and not simply those of late. A recent vigil for the murder of 3 Ottawa womyn didn't get nearly as much attention as the "Police Brutality" protests when we should KNOW that these issues are so closely linked.

Feminist Catalyst said...

Ugh, Blogger double posted. Sorry.

I would also like to add that I appreciate your accessibility comment but I think we also need to recognize that 'accessible' also means in language, and in presence. For many people, the BB or other violent forms of resistance are intimidating, triggering and uspetting to witness. For others, straight up lobbying or academic activism uses inaccessible language that speaks in the abstract instead of the real-life. It's the balance between both that I think is key.