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Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

With Anarchist People of Color (APOC) in New Orleans

In Identity Politics, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics, The Revolution on July 15, 2012 at 8:59 PM

This past weekend I made another convergence trip—this time, to the Anarchist People of Color (APOC) Convergence in New Orleans. To say it was a unique, inspirational experience would not quite get at the spectrum of feelings—from relief to frustration, from heat-induced exhaustion to tamed frenzy—I experienced in my four days there.

The APOCalypse convergence began on Thursday evening, with a plenary discussion about responses to state and interpersonal violence. Held at the office of Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE), an organization that works to connect wrongfully incarcerated folks in the South, the ‘panelists’ include women involved with INCITE! (including Andrea Smith). Some of the points raised in this initial discussion became recurring themes in the workshops I attended in the next two days:

  • before the creation of the nation-state, many societies (including many First Nation and indigenous societies) were able to regulate violence without the need of a police force and instead relied on forms of mutual trust and community accountability
  • rather than always being on the defensive (that is, reacting to state policies and crises) and launching revolutionary struggle that aims to take over or change the state, we should work to create the systems, relationships, and institutions we would want in a non-violent world. This is a point often attributed to anarchism and often placed in opposition to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideals that take proletarian revolt and state take-over as preeminent.
  • violence is a complex notion that cannot be homogenized throughout varying circumstances in different spatio-temporal contexts. Violence can mean different things, whether we speak of interpersonal, institutional, or state-perpetrated forms of it, and any prescription of its use or non-use as a revolutionary tactic should be context-sensitive.

This, of course, only scratches the surface of the in-depth discussions and ruminations that took place in the workshops held. The workshops I went to included topics such as dealing with police brutality, the Take Back the Land movement, the relationship (or tensions) between socialism and anarchism, and even a survival, skills-based workshop on knot-tying and rope climbing.

Personally, it was an incredible experience to be with like-minded people of color who were willing to question the status quo on many fronts, from Marxist-inspired guerrilla armed struggle to the ways in which we express love and respect to each other as human beings. What was noticeably (and blissfully) minimized in these spaces were the prototypical finger-wagging, soap-box speech-making, and goals-oriented politicking I’ve encountered in other leftist circles.

Verging away from the goal-oriented paradigm that has saturated my life (from my readings to grassroots organizing work), this convergence made me continue to question the ways hierarchy and discipline are structured. Why do we assume that consensus-building among many people is impossible or difficult? Why do we circumscribe our revolutionary work within highly defined roles (e.g. housing organizer, political educator)? Why do we engage with state and electoral politics as opposed to building ourselves the world we seek?

While engaging with these questions may seem to be another iteration of a socialist-anarchist dialectic, I actually think they are simple questions we have often cloaked under inaccessible ideological debates and esoteric jargon. In reality, the questions being dealt with here are as simple as questioning why we do things the way we do, and whether there are alternatives beyond what has been normalized.

I hope this experience in New Orleans only marks another step in a journey towards deeper questioning and relationship-building. And I hope that writing continues to be a means through which I can process the many thoughts I encounter along the way.


Why Convergence Can’t Always Be the Goal

In Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on July 8, 2012 at 2:07 AM

I spent my Independence Day in Philadelphia hoping to connect with individuals at two national convergences: one being the National Gathering for the Occupy movement, and the other being the Philadelphia Radical Convergence that was explicitly critical of the Occupy movement. Since I was only available to make it to Philly for July 4th, I only caught the tail end of each–and even then, for various reasons that are hard to explain without a long-winded narration, I was only partially engaged with each.

Were there things that explicitly threw me off? Yes and no. I went to the PRC first, intrigued by a discussion they were about to have about homonationalism (and pink washing, as I expected). There were two moderators who began their discussion about homonationalism with an audio clip of a conversation between Anderson Cooper and Stacey Pritchard, a member of a congregation whose pastor is explicitly homophobic (as in “faggots should burn in hell” type of homophobia). The irony of that interchange on Anderson Cooper 360 was that Cooper defended “gay rights” by invoking the abuse of human rights–murders of supposedly ‘gay’ individuals in Iraq and Iran–in a manner aligned with the (neo)colonialist project of universalizing privileged, First World white gay men’s narratives. The self-identification and modes of being of individuals in those places identified by Cooper (Iraq, Iran) are erased under an implicit homonationalist rhetoric that selectively upholds that notion of gay rights as universal human rights while ignoring the violence perpetrated by the US military industrial complex. The very real abuse of human rights that occurs during U.S.-led bombings and drone attacks is muted as we choose to highlight the abuse of ‘gay’ rights in these countries. It strikes me as sadly ironic that a similar human rights-based discourse is used to justify egregious military violence through vaguely-defined goals of upholding “democracy” and “freedom.”

Needless to say, I found it to be an intriguing, much-needed discussion–except that the very bodies present in the room (and here we were, in the historic Church of the Advocate where the Black Panthers held many of their events) were predominately white or light-skinned. Here we were discussing the discursive violence of homonationalism and pinkwashing, but within a group that was largely white. It was a nice little throwback to my disorienting and surreal experiences in college, where, among other things, I had to endure discussions of income inequality in a room full of the affluent.

Those who spoke during the discussion periods allotted were of course folks who shared similar vocabularies and means of communicating, something that could not occur without some form of shared cultural and social capital, and primarily educational privilege (and I use this in the broadest sense, since I cannot presume the source of their education).


Church of the Advocate

To be clear, there was nothing I was explicitly against, both in terms of arguments and the very structure of ­the discussion. This is a situation I’ve found myself in before, and it can be extremely unnerving when you wish there was a simple and straightforward reason behind your sense of detachment or disinterest. Perhaps it was me entering a space where I didn’t personally know the individuals involved and therefore did not develop sufficient trust in order to feel at ease within the conversation. Perhaps it was the fact that there was no explicit discussion of the varied privileges I perceived in that room, or the fact that this conversation was not created for an audience with less academic/educational capital. Regardless, as I often do in those murky moments of disengagement, I left.

Not surprisingly, when I made it to the Occupy National Gathering in Franklin Square, I was disengaged once again. There were definitely more people here, and the feeling was, for lack of a better term, ­­­carnivalesque–a clear attempt to replicate the spirit of Liberty Square, though with less amenities and tents. It was a bitterly similar feeling of not having an explicit, easily expressible reason for being disengaged (although the U.S. Americanist imagery was definitely cause for unease). Again, it could have been that I was a late arrival, did not have any personal connections with the people there, that there was an overrepresentation of whites, etc. I have less to say here because I did not make a concerted effort to engage–partly because it was absurdly hot and because it felt awkward swooping in while conversations were already in session.

So maybe I’m to blame for not striving harder to make connections, or to make my voice heard. But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t really care much for critically engaging or being heard.


Small Groups in Discussion at Occupy National Gathering


Among the various signs at Franklin Square

I write all this, frankly, not because I have something to genuinely critique, but because I have various questions and uncertainties that merit processing. I think there is a tendency in the academic Left to always critique–and that sans critique, you are missing something crucial, missing an important analysis or incisive judgment that should inform your understanding of the subject in question. Today, however, I feel compelled to write against this trend–not because I want to critique the process of critiquing, but more to naturally allow for the flourishing of ambiguities and uncertainties and see where that takes me.

Indeed, it was only in writing this–initially with the fear that I had nothing explicit to overtly analyze–that I realized that this was what I needed to unpack. Not everything needs an incisive critique, a mind-blowing analysis, or a beautifully-worded documentation of events.  Not everything needs a well defined  (forgive the jargon) telos, something upon which we can hinge our beautifully scattered minds. Sometimes the very process of ruminating is enough–and it certainly is something we need more of.

I admit that I wish I could have written something more extensive about the nature of social capital, or about problems of the Occupy movement, or about the conflicts that exist within a sectarian Left that has a tendency to problematize everything to the point of disunity. I could have written about many of these things (they certainly crossed my mind), but ultimately I find it more liberating to say I don’t have a fully processed, fully developed motive, agenda, or thesis statement.

As I’ve learned through a multiplicity of harsh experiences, the notion of ‘control’–whether it be of life circumstances, the people around you, etc.–is one predicated on the belief that you have power over that which is to be controlled. As much as I wish I could control certain things–my chronic pain among them–I’ve had to come to terms with something that many of us are trained to rebel against–that there are things beyond our individual powers.

Putting ego aside, sometimes the ‘discovery’ we need to make is in acknowledging the incredible hodgepodge of circumstances that cosmically collide for no apparent reason. I think now of the Serenity Prayer that is so often linked to Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Sometimes our strength lies in acknowledging what we are able to change, make fit, or break apart. And sometimes it is in acknowledging that no amount of personal will can break the barriers that create havoc in our worlds. In between these two, we must ask ourselves some of the most heart-wrenching questions.

Obamacare Ruling: A Step in the Right Direction?

In Health Justice on July 3, 2012 at 10:19 PM

Since the “Obamacare” ruling this past Thursday, June 28th, I have been ponderously ruminating over its general and personal ramifications. Whatever one’s personal beliefs regarding the law are, it is unlikely that the long, drawn-out war over U.S. health care has reached an end. If anything, the ruling has left us with much to contemplate regarding its ability to do what much of the U.S. Left has long striven for: provision of universal health care coverage.

As a young adult with a chronic medical condition, I have personally benefited from the Obamacare legislation (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, or ACA for short). That said, when examining the major elements of the latest ruling (particularly the Medicaid expansion provision), as well as some of the gaping holes of the original Act (which did not include individuals who were undocumented or incarcerated), I’m left wondering if these reformist measures have not actually made future struggles for universal health care all the more difficult.

To put things into perspective, it is worth noting that ACA was never a step towards revolutionizing health care in our ardently capitalistic society. Naturally, then, ACA never touched the profit motive underlying our health care provision, justified under neoliberal ideologies that exalt the merits of “entrepreneurialism,” competition,” and the “free” market. As many scholars have already noted, rather than promote the competition and efficient access to medical services that free market proponents continually promise, the expansion of commercial insurance companies (that are required, by law, to pander to the interests of their stockholders) has created a patchwork health care ‘system’ with incredible costs (due to administrative overhead and underutilized equipment) and an aggravatingly non-transparent, labyrinthine bureaucracy.

I write this today because my interest in health care is undeniably personal: were it not for the fragmented nature of our health care ‘system,’ I would likely not have experienced the worsening of my own medical condition (multiple sclerosis), nor have witnessed my brother’s untimely death seven months ago. I can offer the details about my story at some future point, but it suffices to say that my story is not unique: millions of people in this corporatocracy of ours have dealt with crushing medical bills, braved treatable illnesses due to lack of coverage, and/or have seen their conditions worsen. Like my brother, some have died altogether—not because of the malice of individual doctors (though this may be a contributing factor), but because of the larger, more systematic evil of the for-profit motives that govern the medical-industrial complex.  (More on this larger picture in my future blog posts)

And it is here that we should pause: given this long-standing history of systemic violence care institutions and their beneficiaries, wouldn’t last week’s ruling give us reason to celebrate? After all, it preserves the basic provisions that would expand health coverage for millions of citizens; insurance companies can no longer reject individuals with pre-existing conditions, and young adults (including many recent college graduates) may continue to be covered under their parents’ insurance(s) until the age of 26. (For the record, I actually benefit from both of these clauses because I am 24 and with a pre-existing condition that would have cut me out of the insurance market upon aging out.) The upholding of ACA will bring much needed relief to millions of people who were like me right after graduation: in medical purgatory, living and praying day-to-day that my chronic condition would not suddenly worsen.

However, while it is important to acknowledge how this may be a tremendous victory for some, it would be downright fallacious to suggest that ACA (especially after Thursday’s ruling) offers anything akin to universal health care. Additionally, I think it would be presumptuous at this point to conclude that many people who were otherwise excluded from basic, non-emergency health care would soon be relieved. ACA, for instance, would never have passed the then-Democratic majority Congress had it not explicitly excluded undocumented immigrants and prisoners from its provisions. ACA not only failed to provide a single-payer system that reduces costs in countries likeBritain andCanada, but it was also never meant to be truly universal.

Today, the law’s democratic potential has become even more diluted now that the penalization of States that do not abide by the original Medicaid expansion provision has been thrown out the window. Under the ACA that was passed in 2010, all states were obliged to expand their Medicaid coverage to all non-elderly people with an income below 133% of the poverty line by 2014, or face removal of their existing Medicaid funding. The June 28th ruling declared the mandatory aspect of this provision to be unconstitutional (justified through the upholding of states’ sovereignty), and states are now free to decide whether or not to expand their Medicaid funding.

As Imara Jones notes in his article published in Colorlines, this ruling bears the potential of ‘locking in’ racial and class inequalities, particularly in Southern, Republican-controlled states where politicians are less likely to elect a Medicaid expansion. The decision to remove the ‘mandatory’ element of the Medicaid expansion provision may seem like a legitimately constitutional move to acknowledge state sovereignty for some, but there’s a very good chance that many will be locked out of state-subsidized health care.

With the individual mandate provision being upheld (judged constitutional if understood as a ‘tax’), one could easily foresee a situation that disadvantages poor and working-class individuals and families. For instance, in a state where only those families that are under the federal poverty line are covered, individuals and families right above the poverty line will suffer tremendously if they need to pay up a great percentage of their earnings on healthcare. Given how out-dated our poverty line measure is, it easily becomes another situation where those caught in the middle—too ‘rich’ to get Medicaid coverage, too ‘poor’ to pay the costs upfront—will need to make some considerably difficult and unfair financial decisions.

While the Supreme Court ruling may seem like a substantial victory for millions of (North) Americans in the short-term, there are various reasons to doubt whether it is a much-needed step towards providing healthcare for all. What may result is a deeper entrenchment of marginalized groups that do not benefit from ACA in the least. Furthermore, last week’s ruling may just have led us to yet another “set-up-for-failure” scenario—much like President Johnson’s “Great Society” in the 1970s—that might incite another myopic, Right-wing counterattack.

If our earnest goal is universal health care (i.e. firmly believing that health care is a human right), the Obamacare ruling can be seen as taking us several steps backwards by fortifying the for-profit medical industry, legitimizing the criminalization of communities of color, and failing to aggressively attack racial and class inequality. Rather than be complacent with a blatantly reformist law, we must continue fighting for what we truly need, even if means thinking beyond capitalistic frameworks and truly revolutionizing our minds and bodies in the process. After all, it is our very health and lives that we are fighting for.

David A. Shirk

Associate Professor, Political Science, University of San Diego

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