Archive for the ‘Organizing & Activism’ Category

How Egypt did it.

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

It's difficult to write about a moving target. People are going to be studying this revolution for years, and I know anything I say now risks becoming obsolete within hours as new information comes to light. I want to write this down, though, because these are my immediate impressions. As time goes on, frames will change, facts that seem big now will be forgotten, and things that seem trivial will loom larger in light of future events. (I'm looking at you, Algeria, Yemen, Syria.)

Beyond that, I'm writing through a haze of exhilaration so strong there have been times I couldn't type. I know so many people who have wanted this so long, and so bad, that seeing their euphoria makes me a hater when I read calmer voices deliberating about what's next. I plan to join them later, no really, but for the time being I'm still bouncing around the house like I'm nine and it's my birthday.

Anyway. Mubarak resigned about 48 hours ago. This is how I see it now.

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"Leave already, my arm is hurting"

The revolution was a popular uprising, but it was not a spontaneous one. For the first two decades of Mubarak's rule, the only real opposition came from the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past decade that started to change, when pro-democracy organizations, mostly but not entirely youth, began coordinating with labor. These groups aren't Islamist, but what's interesting to me is that they've avoided slamming the Muslim Brotherhood and have even worked with some of the younger members in tactical matters. I assume that's because the Islamists have more support in the baladi neighborhoods, where people aren't on Facebook. ("Pro-democracy activists" here means activists opposed to both Mubarak and the Brotherhood, although the Brotherhood also supports democracy.)

The last time I was in Egypt, just after the April 6 demonstrations, I posted this story and this op-ed from Al-Ahram. Someone else posted this article in a comment; all three are from 2008 and in retrospect they predicted current events (although Al-Ahram also emphasized Facebook's silliness which some believe was part of the government's strategy, to make protesters seem young and dumb — Al-Ahram is state-controlled).

At the time I was skeptical. I thought the "Facebook activists" were too middle-class to get popular support in working-class Cairo, much less Upper Egypt and among the fellahin. They were strategic about it, though, emphasizing economic concerns in neighborhoods like Bulaq and democracy and human rights with educated youth online. Lots of people are comparing this to Iran (both v.1979 and v.2009) but April 6 organizers were trained by the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milošević.

I think the youth movement in Iran did have some influence. Then there were larger demonstrations last summer after Khaled Said's murder. (Mona Eltahawy wrote about them in June.) And then, just before a planned demonstration on Police Day (January 25), Tunisia happened. This wasn't the impetus, but it was the tipping point. The organizers' strategy depended on getting spontaneous participation from the neighborhoods, because if they'd gone out alone they wouldn't be able to get past police barricades. This also became important later when they occupied Tahrir. Judging only from the pictures, the square was filled with every demographic during the days, including lots of middle-class youth, but at nights it was older, middle- and working-class men who actually set up tents and slept in front of tanks. Tunisia provided that spark.

On nonviolence:

Egyptians aren't unfamiliar with violent attempts at overthrow. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, launched a terrorist campaign that went on through most of the 1990s. I was living there then and it was frightening. The difference between then and now is more qualitative than quantitative. Al-Gamaa killed hundreds of people, and hundreds of people were killed in this situation, too. What was different was the mood on the streets. In the 1990s, you learned to distrust the people around you, and to wonder if they were distrusting you. Although statistically speaking there was a low chance of getting hurt, every shop, hotel, school, cafe, and apartment building initiated security measures that had you constantly on guard. I developed an irrational fear of parked cars and unattended rubbish bins that is still with me today.

This time around, one of the main driving forces of revolutionary sentiment was the feeling that people could count on strangers. The mood was overwhelmingly one of love and acceptance and the goosebumps you get from realizing you're on the exact same emotional page with thousands of people around you. That is the polar opposite of the feeling Al-Gamaa produced. Nonviolent strategy was crucial to that.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicAt the same time, though, this definition of nonviolence wasn't passive. It meant nonviolence against people, not property. Activists understood that one of the goals was to shut down the economy and make Egypt a non-functioning state. To that end you saw graffiti, broken windows, burning cars, blocked roads, thousands of people breaking through police barricades, and (my favorite) the KFC in Tahrir "liberated" and turned into a makeshift health clinic. These are actions that are typically called "violent," at least in the U.S., because they create temporary chaos. Civil rights leaders were accused of it, too, when they boycotted segregated institutions and by virtue of their numbers, not their actions, filled jail cells and sent the police into the streets. The final straw in Egypt was the nation-wide labor strike the day before Mubarak resigned. He'd survived the closing of the stock market and the banks, but when work shut down there was no way he could convince foreign investors and Egypt's ruling elite that he was saving the country from chaos. Earlier, he had literally told activists in Tahrir to "have fun," i.e. that they were nothing to him. He could survive peaceful protests but he could not survive the collapse of the economy.

On emotion:

This entire experience has made me less critical of people who are reluctant to participate. Once a revolution becomes historical fact, it's easy to go back and see those who were on the fence as being in league with The Man or something. But following it as it happened was different. Egyptians were talking about real, human worries: from small things like the lack of proper toilets in Tahrir to big things like the fear of being gunned down in the streets. There was a shortage of food in the shops. Transportation was impossible. One of the looters was captured by protesters and sobbed in fear as he talked about the money he'd taken from the regime to say he loved Mubarak; he said his mother was dead and he had no other way to support his brothers. People understood this — it's the Egypt they know. There was very little of the I'm-smarter-than-you posturing that seems endemic to political movements here. People were patient with each other.

Some Egyptians actually worried about this. They said the emotional level was so high in Egypt that if Mubarak showed up and looked contrite, people would be eager to forgive him, not only to get back to their regular lives but because they felt real sympathy at seeing him so degraded. When Nasser lost the 1967 war with Israel, he cried on television and resigned, apologizing for failing his people. The people rose up and demanded he return, which he did. Some were expecting a moment like that. This is why I think the timing of the Wael Ghonim interview was so crucial. People were waiting for tears and apologies from Mubarak, and instead they got them from one of the prominent activists. Meanwhile Mubarak and Suleiman went on being the gruff patronizing angry dads they always have been.

On imagination:

Three other groups that provided unplanned but crucial support were the Arab expats, the Christians and Muslims who supported each other in prayer, and what I'll call the civic activists who swept Tahrir and formed neighborhood watch groups.

The expats held solidarity marches around the world and put pressure on foreign governments to stand with the Egyptian people, not Mubarak. During the internet blackout they transcribed phone messages from Egypt and uploaded them to Twitter. They gave interviews to the international media. They blogged. They translated the chants on YouTube videos. They set up Tor networks to let Egyptians in Egypt communicate anonymously. The night of February 2 will haunt me forever, the night of the government's worst attack on the protesters. I stayed up all night just listening to Al-Jazeera and watching Facebook refresh, as Arab friends in Canada, Malaysia, New York, Indonesia, Italy, Dubai, and of course Egypt itself kept up a steady stream of re-tweets and status updates, coordinating in English, French, and Arabic to monitor which escape routes out of Tahrir were clear and which ones were blocked, where to get medical help, which streets were burning, and which hospitals needed blood. As the sun came up in Cairo one Palestinian friend posted, "I can't do this shit anymore." His exhaustion was palpable. It was a long night.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Christians were forming human chains around Muslims in prayer and Muslims formed human chains around Christians during Sunday mass. For years Mubarak had exploited tensions between these two groups, and I realize they won't magically disappear. But this act provided a vision for what a new Egypt could look like.

The same goes for the people who cleared trash from the streets. Aside from the demonstrations themselves, I think people talked about this more than anything else. Culturally, Egyptians have always had a sense of duty towards each other, but civic responsibility has been zero. And why not? They've had no voice in the bureaucracy or institutions of their country, so there's been no incentive to participate. Seeing people clean the streets "because this is our country now" was a powerful sight. So, too, were the neighborhood watch groups that formed after the regime opened the prisons and paid off the thugs and looters. In Alexandria, I heard groups of teenage boys walked through the streets at night chanting, "Sleep, Alexandria, we are your sons, and we will protect you."

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Good links:

How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak:

"The fact that everything was very organized from the beginning made people feel safe and more willing to participate. For example there were maps to the protest locations and how groups should move and who should be in the front row," says Dalia. "This gave some sense of safety for the participants. In other words, it was not a random or spontaneous upheaval. No, it was well planned and organized." This web-based planning was critical, given that the vast majority of people on the "We Are All Khaled Said" page—and those who entered the streets on the 25th—were not veteran human rights activists and bloggers.

The Secret Rally That Sparked an Uprising:

Those present included representatives from six youth movements connected to opposition political parties, groups advocating labor rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.

The Road to Tahrir:

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories; news stories that journalists can’t print themselves without facing state persecution—for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor—such stories are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters; once they are reported online, journalists then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as sources, in this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the story.

Into Egypt's Uncharted Territory:

Throughout the wave of protests, the youth coordinating the efforts, notably the April 6 movement, have offered opposition leaders no blank checks… Besides protecting their movement from outside opportunism, the protesters have steered it away from the ideological differences that have fragmented organized opposition political activity in the past. Avoiding and sometimes suppressing religious slogans, the demonstrations have maintained an image as a national uprising of patriotic Egyptians — nothing more and nothing less.

Al-Ahram English has a special revolution edition with lots of articles.

"People & Power," an Al-Jazeera feature of the April 6 movement, which I think was put together during the internet blackout (sorry about the eyeball – blame YouTube):

And this — which isn't about activism but is too awesome not to post — demonstrators in Alexandria meet below Khaled Said's mother's apartment after hearing that Mubarak stepped down. They recite the first surah of the Qur'an, a gesture of respect when there's been a death, and then sing the national anthem and chant his name:

Why military rule is okay for now.

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

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source: unknown

"The army took over. It's replacing one dictatorship with another."

No. I've been hearing this on the streets (and by "streets" I mean Facebook and blogs), but that's not what's happening in Egypt right now.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces taking over is a good thing, actually more than the demonstrators had hoped for. The options for power transfer, from bad to less-bad, were as follows:

Option #1 was Mubarak staying in power and slaughtering the protesters until the demonstrations stopped. Obviously that's the worst case scenario, but it's important to remember that just three weeks ago that was the expected outcome. It's what's always happened in the past.

Option #2 was Mubarak's early "concession" speech, in which he said he would not run again in September. He'd then have seven months to crush the movement, and anyway he's said this before. The protesters didn't accept this and held Tahrir.

Option #3 was giving more power to the vice president, Omar Suleiman, who was appointed all of two weeks ago. On Thursday night Mubarak was expected to resign, but did this instead. It was a joke.

Option #4 was Mubarak resigning and giving all power to Suleiman. This was the expected outcome Thursday night, and would have been considered an important victory because Mubarak, at least, would be gone. The people would not have accepted Suleiman as a legitimate successor but the mood seemed to be that he would be easier to oust than Mubarak. If they had even gotten this far down the list, it would be considered a revolution, not "unrest."

Option #5 was following the Constitution (which has been suspended since Sadat's assassination 30 years ago, but it does exist) and giving power to the speaker of parliament, in this case Fathi Surur, who is no better than Mubarak or Suleiman. This Post article explains the constitutional process.

Option #6 — and this is what happened — was Mubarak and Suleiman both stepping down and interim power being handed over to another person or organization while activists worked on developing political parties and the political process. The question was who? ElBaradei's name came up a lot in the Western press, but he's been living in exile for years and he's not this Nelson Mandela figure for Egyptians. They also could have also chosen Amr Moussa or one of the heads of parties who've run against Mubarak in the past, like Ayman Nour. But it was unlikely that Mubarak would appoint a former rival, and even if he had, it would have caused problems later as parties begin to move towards democratic reform. If the new head of the government had long-term political ambitions, he'd be tainted by being Mubarak's hand-picked successor, and without a working constitution or functioning parliament there'd be no check on his power.

The army is distinct from the police. Most of the violence in the past weeks has come from the police, who are trained by and loyal to the regime. The army is much larger, comprised of men from all over Egypt, since all Egyptian males do military service. The leaders of the demonstrations communicated early with the military's top brass, agreeing to peaceful protests and asking the army not to fire on the people. The army did not always comply and there are reports that they've been responsible for some of the human rights abuses, including torture, of demonstrators. As a body, though, they remained officially neutral throughout the conflict, which was one of the first signs that Mubarak was on his way out. He called in the army to "restore the peace" after the police presence wasn't sufficient to stop the protests, but this was welcomed by ordinary Egyptians, who saw the army as being of-the-people. Demonstrators greeted soldiers with "my son" and "my brother" and asked for help in stopping the looters (i.e. government-paid thugs). Although the military wasn't on the side of the demonstrators, the fact that it wasn't against them was astonishing to outsiders like me who were watching this all go down, but Egyptians themselves didn't seem surprised and in fact keeping the army neutral was part of the official coordination by activist groups like April 6.

Most importantly, the Supreme Council is a group, not a person, and it has no political ambitions the way a single individual would. They announced this morning that they would be meeting the demonstrators' demands, including the formation of a transitional government and holding free elections to form a civilian government. They also said they will honor all existing international treaties, including peace with Israel. Of course these may be modified by whatever new government comes in, but it's a positive sign for now because it shows the military understands its place isn't to be making political decisions.

This entire situation is atypical. Usually when an army takes over a government it's because the revolution was orchestrated by the military itself. In this case, the military was caught off guard, and have only stepped in at the request of Mubarak and with the consent of the people. If, in a few weeks or months from now, some of its leaders get power-mad and decide use their positions to reinforce the status quo, then you can talk about military dictatorship. Right now, though, that's not what's going on.

ETA: Why Mubarak is Out — A detailed analysis of the many different players in Egypt's security state

18 days.

Friday, February 11th, 2011


Click on CC for English subtitles
The graffiti behind the father and daughter reads "The streets belong to us"

My daughter was seven years old on September 11. For the past decade – i.e. the entirety of her childhood, the only one she'll ever get – she has had to endure taunts and slurs and snickers, or at best pinched "tolerance," about her ethnicity and her religion. She's handled it well and is actually quite articulate in countering the bias. But it's fatiguing, and over time she has distanced herself from her Arab Muslim background. I can't tell you how much this saddens me, but I know she's not alone in this reaction, I know her life needs to be more than an ongoing argument with other people's ignorance, and I've tried to give her space to work out who she is and how she identifies.

She turned seventeen this week, and it's a milestone. For the first time ever, I have seen her beaming, in that I told you guys all along way, whenever some only-sorta-follows-the-news American asks her, "Wait… aren't you Egyptian?"

شكرا يا مصر

January 25 – February 11

Friday, February 11th, 2011

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"The Chair Carrier"

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Short film with English subtitles. Directed by Tarek Khalil.

More women of Egypt.

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

In children's books, Rosa Parks is portrayed as a middle-aged woman who was too tired to stand up and yield her seat on the bus to a white man. This version has some poetic appeal to it — one woman standing, er, sitting, alone, against the institution of segregation — but it ignores Parks' history as an activist and undermines the work of the many people who organized with her.

Asmaa Mahfouz is likewise being portrayed as the girl who started the revolution in Egypt, by uploading her vlog (see below) to YouTube and Facebook. But Asmaa is not a "girl"; she's a 26-year-old woman with a BA in Business Administration from Cairo University. She also did more than upload a vlog. She was part of the April 6 movement, a grassroots youth organization that has been active in Egypt for the past two years. To treat her like she's Joan of Arc, a young girl "knowing neither A nor B," appeals to those who want to see Egyptian activists as sympathetic but ultimately disorganized and naive. While it's true this is not a top-down movement, and its success seems to have surprised everyone inside Egypt and out, it's also unfair to ignore the groundwork in democratic organizing that has been laid by activists for the past five years, including the April 6, Khalid Said, and Kifaya movements.

Read an interview with Asmaa Mahfouz here.

Wael Ghonim interview.

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Last June, Khalid Said,* a 28-year-old Egyptian man, was beaten to death by police officers outside an internet cafe in Alexandria. His death sparked protests last summer, and another young Egyptian, Wael Ghonim, set up an anonymous Facebook page called "We Are Khalid Said."** Ghonim is Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. On the Facebook page he referred to himself only as "El-Shaheed" ("the martyr").

On January 27th, two days after the major protests began, Ghonim went missing. After 12 days in prison, he was released on Tuesday and gave this interview. Everyone is talking about this today, and with good reason. I really, really recommend you watch.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

*Alternatively spelled Khaled Said or Khalid Saeed.
**Ghonim's page was in Arabic. There is a separate English page on Facebook with the same name. Both are devoted to the same person and the same cause, but they are managed/monitored by different people.

"This is not chaos. It is planned strategy."

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

This is what they're willing to do to foreign journalists, ones with international name recognition, at a time when the story is being covered, live, across the planet. Now imagine you're an unknown and unconnected journalist or activist trying to tell your story three months from now, under the same regime, once the world's no longer watching.

The human rights implications are obvious. But so are the free press implications. The world is covering Egypt right now because events are astonishing and dramatic. Three months from now, hearing a politician talk pedantically about his party platform will be a yawner. Hearing two activists debate ideas in Mansoura or Ismalia isn't going to be breaking news on CNN. But those kinds of debates, boring though they may be, are inherent to democracy. You need and free and open LOCAL press for that. It doesn't matter how free and open Al-Jazeera is because Al-Jazeera covers Egypt, not Shubra. Opposition papers are widely available in Egypt but clearly it's not a fair debate when one, and only one, party has round-the-clock access to state television.

Mubarak is selling this idea that there will be free elections in September, but "free elections" aren't (only) about election day itself. Democracy needs to be institutionalized well in advance for the process to take shape. In some countries you have a clear opposition leader to rally around. In Egypt that's not the case. I submit that is a GOOD thing, because it fosters discussion and debate instead of hero-worship. But you can't have the media be status quo for seven months and then expect a real choice in the election.

More women of Egypt.

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Reading Nawal El Saadawi when I was 17 was my gateway drug into Middle Eastern politics. Now she's 80 years old, living in Cairo, and still protesting. Here she's interviewed by Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!

This is an interview from Tahrir Square yesterday (Monday) with an activist who explains the current situation.

And I don't know who this woman is, but she's being called "The Bravest Girl in Egypt." I saw the original version of this on Facebook and she goes on like this for NINE minutes. This is only a third of it. Incredible.

Applying the Obama political model to Palestine?

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Juan Cole on Gaza: What to do about it?

I think people should be careful about talking about "the Israeli lobby" (or worse, "the Jewish lobby") as the sole cause of America's Middle East policy being what it is (see "Anti-semitism and U.S. Middle East policy" by Stephen Zunes, a Palestinian supporter, for more on that). Not that Cole is doing this — he writes on all sorts of aspects of this conflict — but I want to note it here because I don't want this link to be read in isolation and then perpetuate that line of thinking.

However, it is undeniable that the pro-Israel side of this issue is much more organized than the pro-Palestinian side, especially when it comes to doing sustained lobbying of U.S. Congress members. And I think Cole is right when he says this is more effective than street activism. Here, he lays out a model for organizational strategies that anti-occupation activists could apply to counter the weight of AIPAC. They are surprisingly… doable.

Open letter to white activists.

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

I find it curious that African-American women are all lazy unwed welfare-cheating baby-making machines and African-American men are all violent drug-abusing absentee fathers RIGHT UNTIL they are standing in the way of gay rights, at which point they become socially conservative homophobes who can't see past their religious family values. If you're going to scapegoat people of color for all the world's problems, at least make your stereotypes consistent, ya know? C'mon.

First of all, as other people have amply demonstrated, Prop 8 was not lost by people of color, despite what Dan Savage and a whole lot of other people think.

Brown People Did Not Pass Prop. 8

Propositioning Privilege: The reality is that white people are not being blamed as a racial group for the loss because of the sense that queer=white and there is no racial investment that would benefit from an argument that pathologized whiteness as inherently homophobic in the way that white privilege benefits from pathologizing blackness this way. This is a great, comprehensive look at how both sides of the Prop 8 campaign were handled.

Racialicious roundtable on Proposition 8

More links at Alas, A Blog

Furthermore, if it weren't for people of color most of the gay marriage bans still would have passed and McCain would have won the election in a landslide.

Even acknowledging this, I don't think it excuses the way No-on-8 campaign was run. I don't live in California, so I can't really speak to this outside of what I've seen on the internet, but I do want to say a few things about white Left movements, including but not limited to white queer movements, and how they (try to, sort of) do alliances with people of color. This has been brewing for me for a while now; it's not a new problem and I know other people reading this have thought about many of these things so forgive me if it comes off as repetitious or preaching to the choir. I think it still needs to be addressed.

1. Think about how you use civil rights imagery. There are parallels there, and they should be drawn, but to compare the passing of Prop 8 with lynching and Jim Crow disrespects Black history. Even the Loving decision, which is the most obvious parallel (and one Mildred Loving herself endorsed) had a profoundly different history than the history of gays and lesbians. Angry Black Woman discusses the background on that decision and how it was frankly not a huge priority during the civil rights era: So I have to wonder why the No on 8 people chose to present this as a parallel of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. To my mind, this helped trivialize their desire to marry, particularly among older blacks who remember when being able to marry white people was the least of their worries.

I think for white people the relationship is clear: if it was wrong to discriminate against relationships on the basis of race, it should likewise be wrong to discriminate against relationships on the basis of gender. But sexual 'relationships' between races had been going on for generations; what made Loving historic for a lot of people was that it was finally talking about such relationships in the context of mutual consent and agency for both partners — as opposed to systemic sexual violence against women of color by white men and the lynching of Black men perceived to be pursuing white women. It wasn't so much "yay! we get to marry white people! this is the best day of our lives!" :p Which is related to:

2. Think about how you talk about "sex" and "freedom." White people tend to think of consent as an individual thing. Did she, singular, say yes? They're not usually thinking of the three or four hundred years in which white men raped slaves and live-in domestic workers, or the women and girls today who are caught up in the sex trafficking industry. The right not to have sex was a lot harder to win than the right to have it, and I think a lot of folks (myself included) are skeptical of feminist/queer movements when they treat history as if it's all "our sex lives used to be so repressed and limited but hurray now we're free!" Add to that the number of Black men who've been falsely accused of raping white women, and there's an additional layer of reluctance to sign up for a cause that makes more cops the answer to sexual violence and invests a lot of energy in saving white women from all manner of discomfort while having little to say about the imprisonment of Black men for the most petty of crimes. Reluctance especially when, again, white movements treat sexual violence solely as an individual problem (one man raping one woman) rather than a community problem (one race or nationality being granted total sexual agency under the law and another race or nationality just hoping and praying to stay the hell out of their way).

3. Think about how you talk about Black churches. For many white gays and lesbians, the church is a place of repression and silencing, and one of the first institutions they are ready to abandon when they come into adulthood. But the church has played a different role in black communities — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and many many other civil rights leaders tied their work to religious tradition. Black churches have been a powerful source of progressive organizing in communities of color, as well as a source of emotional and financial support for people who are struggling. I'm not saying there isn't more work to be done there, and I'm not saying religion played no role in getting people to support Prop 8. But to speak of African-American religiosity as if it's the same thing as your white neighbor's homophobic Bible-thumpin' Leviticus-quoting Rapture-believing denim-jumper-wearing young-earth anti-science women-get-back-in-the-kitchen 700 Club brand of Christianity is to shit on the people who brought you school desegregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black churches are potential allies, and indeed many religious leaders have already come out in favor of LGBT rights, but those alliances aren't going to get very far if white Leftists keep talking about them as if they are forces of institutionalized oppression when in reality their role in American history has been precisely the opposite.

4. Think about how you talk about your neighborhood. I'm not going to go into the whole history of gentrification except to note that it goes beyond where any one person decides to locate. It's about how you treat and speak about your community. Would the elderly want to live in your neighborhood? Not would they be welcome but would they actually want to? Would they have things to do? What about families with small children who are not part of your particular subculture or political community? Would you send your own kids to the local schools?

I know white Leftists and/or LGBT folks live all over the map and these issues aren't germane to everybody, but "building community" seems to be something we value and devote a lot of time to without thinking about the impact it has and the message it sends to people outside "our" (actually quite insular) community. I've seen this come up a LOT, not just around Prop 8 but in general when the possibility of POC/queer alliances comes up.

5. Think about how you talk about other people's neighborhoods. I saw a fair bit of No-on-8 people talking about their reluctance to canvass in "bad" areas. I am going to go out on a limb and guess these were pretty much all communities of color. As far as I can tell, the Yes-on-8 people weren't complaining about this. Now to some extent that's apples and oranges because queer and transgender people have different concerns about safety than straight people (even Mormons) do when they're walking around in unfamiliar territory, but those concerns apply in white neighborhoods as much or more so and I didn't hear anyone saying "I can't doorknock in the suburbs or they'll kill me." I know when I hear someone say they won't go into certain parts of the city, even someone else's city, I feel like a wall just went up between us — even if I'd previously seen this person as a friend or ally — because that's the kind of neighborhood I live in. And I'm white. So think about how that comes across. As others have said repeatedly in the past few days, the No campaign didn't ask for those votes, so it is disingenuous to express shock after the fact.

6. Queerness does not negate whiteness. Neither does communism, anarchism, or any other brand of radical politics. This one was hard for me when I was younger, because the force of what for the sake of brevity I'll call Mainstream SocietyTM was so strong that I saw all people who were any brand of "other" as natural allies. To an extent, there's value in that world view. In 1991 I went to a large demonstration in Chicago that was organized by CISPES, ACT UP, and the anti-war movement; the point was to solidify connections between groups that might otherwise seem disparate and single issue, to reject divide-and-conquer strategies of the Right, and to make sure our activist work was attentive to the interrelatedness of different forms of oppression.

But "interrelatedness" != "same as," and at some point I had to confront how my work on Issue X didn't give me an automatic pass on Issues Y and Z. Nor did it undermine the institutionalized benefits I'd received from growing up in a white family in a country where race matters very deeply. Over time I also realized how what I thought of as my "alternative" status was actually alienating to many people of color: that in many ways my flagrant disregard of Mainstream SocietyTM was the ultimate sign of white privilege. I could go around carrying a placard with my hair dyed three colors and clothes covered in safety pins, but if an African American woman my same age walked out of the house with so much as a rip on her sleeve or a scuff on her shoe she risked being pegged as a charity case and borderline illiterate. That was difficult for me to work out, because the way I presented myself wasn't just a fashion thing — it was a rejection of mainstream beauty standards for women and traditional notions of gender. Appearance and self-presentation were politicized for me. I'm not saying we should all go around in pantsuits and business casual and try to be as safe and non-threatening as possible when talking about politics (don't read me that way), nor am I saying there aren't people of color who are also concerned about how these issues intersect (don't read me that way either), but when I looked at this whole thing from the perspective of people who were already, inherently, considered suspect and outsiders, it made the issue much more complicated for me. I used to be all "get out there! mix shit up!" end of story. But when you can put on a suit and tie and put your daughter in her Girl Scout uniform and go to church to pray to Jesus and still lose your child in a directed attack because of who you are, it makes me a lot less critical of people who might be reserved about pushing the envelope, especially if they're expected to do it in solidarity with people who've never shown much solidarity with them. Which brings me to:

7. Acknowledge your debt. This goes back to #1 and #3 above. If you're going to present your issue (I'm thinking of Prop 8, but other stuff, too) as the outgrowth of the civil rights movement, then it seems smart to learn more about that movement and to get to know people who were involved in it. Civil rights weren't gifts from enlightened white people, nor were they just part of the natural progression of history. They were earned with blood. Don't be casual about that. Don't bring it up only in the context of how it relates to your issue(s). And if you are going to ask for people to support your issue on principle, not because it benefits them but because It's Just The Right Thing To Do, you might work harder to support their issues on principle, too. By "support" I don't mean "agree with it in my mind"; I mean get out there and ask where you can be of service. In the case of California, there were at least two ballot measures that directly affected minority communities. I saw very few white activists write about these, especially compared to the number of straight POC I saw writing about Prop 8. ladyjax writes more about this: When white people roll up on Black folks about being oppressors, there's some truth to it but that gets lost when people start to remember: 'Hmm, that rally for (immigration rights, education, housing, etc. etc.). I didn't see you there.' … Sometimes the fight isn't always about what you want but about reciprocation.

8. Stop assuming African-American support. Everything I'm saying here could fall under the umbrella of "don't take people of color for granted," but I wanted to say something specifically about what seems to be a common assumption — that African Americans, even more than other minorities and definitely more than white people, "should just understand" what gays and lesbians are going through "because it happened to them, too." First of all, as I (and many others) said above, the parallels between the two movements are not nearly as clear as they've been made out to be. Second, to make this an issue of understanding or the lack thereof, rather than resentment at being ignored and trivialized or pushed out of one's own neighborhood, isn't helpful. But most of all, it misses the mother of all points, which is that Prop 8, like most everything that sucks, is overwhelmingly about white money and white power. Even if they voted yes in higher percentages, African Americans are not more guilty than whites, who funded this thing and got it done. Black homophobia isn't especially galling because of their history in this country. White homophobia is especially galling because white conservatives have the resources and, my god, the energy to make defeating LGBT rights such a priority.

9. Stop assuming African-American NON-support. The flip side to the white liberal saying "there's no point in asking for African-American support because we know we already have it" is the white Leftist saying "there's no point in asking for African-American support because we know we'll never get it." Either because of beliefs about Black homophobia or (more charitably) beliefs about Black communities having more pressing priorities, it's still a reluctance to form alliances. Over and over again, at least in blogs, I've been seeing black and brown women saying "no one approached us" or "we weren't asked to help." These are women who voted no anyway (if they're Californian, or from one of the other states that had a ballot measure of this kind), but while doing so some have bitterly pointed out it's another sign that people of color are being treated as silent foot soldiers in a movement while white organizers take over the leadership.

10. Finally, there are queer people of color! I almost didn't include this because it seems too obvious to mention, but I don't want the fact that I am addressing a white audience right now to be taken as a sign that I'm ignoring queer POC or that I'm painting the queer movement as exclusively white. That's been another huge issue in this debate. (See Pam's House Blend post about the treatment of Black gay activists after Prop 8 passed, The N-bomb is dropped on black passersby at Prop 8 protests and ask yourself with friends like these….?) I have much more to say about this, especially as it relates to the treatment of Islam by gay and lesbian activists because that's where most of my attention goes anymore, but really it merits its own post.

What I will say is that I've read some excellent stuff lately (offline) about building alliances between queer communities and immigrants/people of color, and/or about addressing racism in queer organizing, and as much as I like it it still needles me that so much of it assumes an audience of white gays and lesbians, exclusively. Never straight people of color, and, well, the existence of LGBT people of color would ruin the whole argument so they're just left out altogether. The assumption seems to be that white people can be educated about race but queer POC come from backgrounds so hopelessly homophobic that their only choice is to try to assimilate into a white queer community (who will try to be "more sensitive" but will ultimately still control and define the community's agenda).

But when the argument is always framed that way — "I know y'all are good on gay and lesbian issues, but now let's talk about race" — well, just who are you talking to there? I did it myself above, without thinking about it, by linking to the CISPES web site (in case someone doesn't know what that is) but not bothering to link to ACT UP (because I assume anyone reading me has heard of that). That's what I'm talking about. So if you're trying to build alliances but are always assuming that your audience is already politicized around queer stuff but isn't politicized around race issues, you are implicitly communicating your exclusion of people for whom it works the other way around, or who have been prioritizing both things long before they ever stumbled across whatever you're on about at this moment. But again, a post in itself. This one's long enough.

Who is a community organizer?

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Having grown up in a town even smaller than Wasilla, Alaska, I understand, somewhat, the frustration of Palin supporters who mock community organizing. It's not that they're against community organizing, exactly — it's that they think it's nothing special. If disaster befalls your neighbor, OF COURSE you rush to help. But that's just a way of life, evidence that you're a basically decent person. It's not something you'd put on a resume. When they call Obama an elitist in this context they are accusing him of wanting extra credit for something ordinary people consider routine.

The trouble is, picking up litter or helping a sick neighbor or raising money to build a playground — these things are not what Obama's talking about when he says "community organizing." He's never properly defined what he IS talking about, though. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, he admits that he, too, was confused about his job description when he first moved to Chicago and began doing this work. So it should be no surprise that others are unclear on it as well.

Aaron Schutz, one of the writers at Education Policy Blog, has two excellent posts that help define what community organizing is, and, importantly, what it isn't:

What is Community Organizing? What isn't Community Organizing?

How Do Community Organizers Think? (What is Organizing Part II)

He has more on the resources page of his web site.