Why The Left Opposes Police Unions

I.

On June 10, 2016, in a small town just north of Savannah, Georgia, three Teamsters stood on the side of the road outside of a company called XPO Logistics, leafleting truck drivers about their rights as workers. As the truckers left the facility, the Teamsters offered them a flyer, chatting briefly and answering any questions the drivers had. While it’s illegal to leaflet on company property, the Teamsters were stationed on the roadside beyond the facility’s gates.

It was an unremarkable afternoon of outreach, until the local police arrived. Someone from XPO had called them. The officers claimed the trio was blocking the flow of traffic, even though the only drivers on the dead-end road were trucks driving in and out of the facility, and the Teamsters had made a point of standing on the side of the road, flagging drivers down and only approaching once they had stopped driving.

In a state as unfriendly to labor as Georgia, which has the fourth-lowest rate of union membership in the country, the encounter between these Teamsters and the local police was about more than just the actions of these three organizers. No need to believe me; here’s a transcript of the conversation captured by the officers’ body cameras:

“It ain’t like it was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with all those wildcat strikes and those riots and everything,” says one of the officers in the video.

“You smell that?” he continues. “You smell that?”

“The paper mill?” responds one of the organizers quizzically.

“No. Fresh air,” the officer caustically remarks. “We want to make sure everybody can continue to breathe the fresh air.”

A letter later sent to the town by a Teamsters lawyer, who is threatening a lawsuit over the incident if the city doesn’t drop the charges against the organizers, asserts that “there was no other reasonable interpretation” of the “fresh air” remark except that “the police department considers union activity pollution.”

“They wanted to make it seem like us dispersing content is illicit,” said Ben Speight, one of the Teamsters organizers. “The content, the union aspect, is what they were trying to stop.”

Speight speculated that the police citations would make some of the drivers feel uncomfortable talking to the Teamsters in the future for fear of drawing attention to themselves by association.

II.

The encounter between Teamsters and cops is a snapshot of the agonizing difficulty of organizing unions in the South, a place of hostile and organized anti-union machinations. The face of that hostility? The police officers who show up and antagonize union representatives, who ultimately brought charges against the three Teamsters when Speight asked for one of the officers’ badge number.

For the Left, supporting unions is a given. Whatever differences we may have — many, to be sure —we all agree that rebuilding the labor movement is central to achieving a more just society. While the labor movement is not limited to unions, these organizations, the primary place where working-class people are already organized, are a major locus of our attention.

At their best, unions are schools for workers’ democracy, vehicles through which the working class experiences the power of collective action and learns how to demand ownership over the value they produce. In the face of a decades-long organized backlash against unions and declining union membership — which, as a recent Economic Policy Institute study noted, hurts all workers, reducing weekly wages for non-union workers by $14 to $52 — supporting unions is more important than ever.

In the case of those Teamsters leafletting in Georgia, what that support looks like is clear: we’re on their side, against the cops. Sure, these officers were just doing their duty, responding to a call from XPO. But their visceral opposition to unions, analogizing union organizing to pollution and favorably contrasting the anti-union present to the “strikes and riots” of earlier decades, shows a propensity to go far beyond the call of duty.

It’s an easy case, save one complication: cops have unions too, or at least, cops have “unions,” union-like organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), and the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), with the latter housed within the AFL-CIO.

For many progressives and some on the Left, these organizations throw a wrench into an otherwise coherent picture, leading some to engage in intellectual gymnastics to explain away the anti-union sentiment on display in the encounter between the cops and Teamsters in Georgia. But it shouldn’t.

Instead of forcing us into a corner, leaving us muttering that “cops are the 99% too” — a statement heard so often during the Occupy movement — the contradiction revealed by police unions should throw into relief an important distinction between liberals and the Left, namely, the reasons each of these groups support unions. This difference too often goes unacknowledged and in light of the anti-police-brutality movement and the recent uproar over the election of a police-union organizer to the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), it’s worth clarifying the distinction.

III.

The Left supports unions not because they’re an inherent good, but because they’re vehicles for building working-class power. If and when unions do not build that power, we should challenge and criticize them, pushing them to reform. And in the case of police unions, we stand against them as such, because no efforts for reform can change their very reason for existence, which is to undermine working-class interests in general, even as they increase the power of their limited membership.

A huge number of young people are entering left politics today, drawn in by the Sanders campaign, the anti-police-brutality movement, and their own experiences of growing up in an outrageously unequal country. Making explicit the Left’s reasons for supporting unions is critical to advancing the higher level of politics needed in these urgent times. An exploration of police unions provides a means to consider this matter concretely.

As Bill Fletcher Jr and Fernando Gapasin argue in Solidarity Divided, a key difference between liberal and left unionism — what they term “pragmatism” or “traditionalism,” and “leftism,” respectively — is who we consider the proper constituency of the union movement, and toward what end we’re struggling. While the traditionalist/pragmatist views union members as the movement’s constituency, with winning gains for the members (fighting for “bread and butter” as it’s often put) as the goal, the leftist takes all members of the working class to be the proper constituency of the union movement, with strengthening this class’s power our goal.

While these perspectives often align, allowing proponents of both views to work together, police unions drive a wedge between liberals and the Left. If police unions undermine working-class power, even as they achieve gains for their limited membership, the Left should call for their delegitimization wherever they operate, whether within the AFL-CIO or outside of it. But we in doing so, we should be prepared to debate otherwise allied forces — the traditionalists and pragmatists.

IV.

Before moving to the reasons for rejecting police unions, it’s important to consider the argument for them. Despite widespread (and justified) outrage this past weekend over a police union organizer gaining a position on the DSA’s National Political Committee, much of the labor movement includes police unions within its ranks. If we want to win the argument against this view, we must understand it.

At its left-most, this is an argument for the strategic value of engaging progressive dissenters within police departments as a means to splitting their constituents and building power. Those who advance this argument recognize the impossibility of unifying with the bigots who rise to the top of these unions — people like Patrick Lynch, the president of New York City’s largest police union, who blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for the death of two NYPD officers in December 2014. Rather, left-wingers who hold to this view advocate critical support for those seeking to achieve progressive changes from within the police force.

For example, Cedric Johnson argues that the Left should engage “reformist elements within police unions and departments,” people such as “minority law enforcement professional organizations, whistleblowers and dissident officers, and other progressive elements,” all of whom we can unite with on a desire to build a more meaningful and less unpopular model of policing. While Johnson takes care to distinguish what he’s advocating from support for police unions as such, his argument rests on a flawed understanding of the dynamics at play within police unions.

In a rebuttal to Johnson, Shawn Gude argues that “Hoping for reform-minded police unions is delusional.” “If anything,” he adds, “reform groups would benefit from being able to organize without the influence of an overarching union. The same goes for individual officers.” Free of the stifling force of the union, “those of good conscience” — the elements with whom Johnson is concerned — could fight for a broader vision of social justice and radical changes in policing. By dismissing the possibility that police unions work against any reformist interests, Johnson advances a strategy of engagement that doesn’t match the landscape of contemporary US policing.

It’s from a consideration of the purpose of the police and the conditions on which their jobs rely that Gude arrives at his position. The livelihood of the police relies on perpetuating the most repressive aspects of the status quo — de facto race and class segregation in our cities, rising inequality, and what sociologist Loïc Wacquant terms the “carceral continuum,” a state in which the inner-city merges with the prison, with both coming to resemble each other in form and function. Under such conditions, empowered police organizations can only advocate for new weapons, less transparency, and murkier repercussions in the case of police wrongdoing, as these are the “reforms” that benefit their membership, the constituency of interest to their leadership, traditionalists in Fletcher and Gapasin’s schema.

This is not a moral argument about the goodness or badness of police. Rather, it’s a response to the propensity of the police, as Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue argues, to “organize as police, not workers.” This perspective, rooted in a left unionism interested in strengthening the working class as a whole, cannot align with organizations pursuing policies that improve the conditions of their membership at the expense of the broader working class.

When we look at what police organizations have accomplished, the argument that they’re incompatible with a progressive labor movement looks like common sense. As detailed in an interview with the New Republic, University of Nebraska professor and criminal justice reform expert Samuel Walker explains one project these associations have successfully implemented: Law Enforcement Officers Bills of Rights. These are contract prescriptions “negotiated in the shadows” and codified into state law, and include investigative waiting periods, a stipulation that lacks “any evidentiary justification or legitimate labor interest.” With related aims of blocking efforts to install body cameras, as was recently attempted in Boston before a judge struck down the patrolman union’s request for an injunction against the cameras, police associations are incompatible with even the most broadly defined social-justice unionism.

V.

No union is perfect. To varying degrees, all our unions are run by bureaucrats with split interests. While these officials are concerned with furthering the power of their membership, they also maneuver to hold onto their positions within the union, which can lead them to weaken members’ power. When this happens — like when SEIU fires their staff organizers for daring to demand a union of their own, or when the Teamsters undercut the UFW’s organizing, or when the UAW yet again files for an election prematurely — we shouldn’t shy away from criticizing them.

But police unions will never rise to the level required for even this critical support from the Left. They cannot, for they function to repress working-class power.

The biggest objection to this argument is that criticism of police unions can be applied to other public-sector workers, such as teachers. Where this response fails is in grappling with the fact that teachers are already under attack, and that any and every argument against their unions is already in play right now.

We can return to Cedric Johnson’s article on police unions for an example of this objection. He writes, “like other public workers, [police] are increasingly expendable, and subject to the same pressures of fiscal austerity, expected to ‘do more with less’ especially in large urban jurisdictions.” However, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. The police aren’t suffering from austerity measures; rather, they’re more empowered than ever, particularly when it comes to their budgets for equipment, with many departments enjoying unprecedented military hand-me-downs.

What goes unconsidered by those who share Johnson’s concerns is the possibility that police occupy a structurally distinct role from their brothers and sisters in public-sector unions. But if we look at the ongoing backlash against public-sector workers, police aren’t subject to the same pressure as their peers.

Take Scott Walker’s historic attack on unions in 2011. His anti-union bill — which struck down collective-bargaining rights for public employees — included an exception for the police.

This did not go unnoticed within the house of labor. In 2015, UAW Local 2685, representing 13,000 graduate workers on University of California campuses, unanimously passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the IUPA, the AFL-CIO’s largest police union.

“Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of the police as laborers,” the resolution reads. It continues, “If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it’s that cops are different than other public-sector employees.”

This complements resolutions from the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions also passed in 2015 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and for the demilitarizing and disarming of campus police. These resolutions commit their supporters to pursuing strategies to strengthen the Black Lives Matter movement and disarm campus police.

Or consider the recent actions of teachers in Minneapolis. Gathered in the city for the AFT convention in 2016, the local teachers unions led a march to protest the police killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile, who worked at a public school, was a member of Teamsters Local 320, a local that also represents law enforcement officers. Although the Teamsters wrote a letter mourning Castile’s death, the presidents of the St. Paul and Minneapolis police unions were “appalled” by the demonstration, suggesting the extent to which police organizations cannot resolve the contradictions at the heart of their involvement with the labor movement.

Within the anti-police-brutality movement, we see a similar distinction between solidarity with unions and rejection of alliance with police “unions” being made. July 2016 saw a coordinated set of demonstrations and sit-ins at FOP and PBA halls in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. by activists associated with the Movement for Black Lives.

Interviewed about these actions, Clarise McCants, an organizer with the Black Youth Project (BYP100), explained, “We’re definitely pro-labor union,” adding that the coalition’s message is “that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is not just like any union. They are a fraternity — and they are the most dangerous fraternity in America.” If McCants can distinguish between the function of the FOP and that of unions, rejecting their surface-level similarity, there’s no reason the rest of the Left can’t do the same. Protests like these should be supported by the labor movement, with organizations like BYP100 welcomed into its fold: after all, they’re composed overwhelmingly of workers, and particularly, workers of color.

What organizers like McCants are voicing is not a contradiction — although they recognize that some might see it that way — so much as Fletcher and Gapasin’s definition of a leftist unionism. From a perspective that states that we’re not fighting for unions as such, but for unions in so far as they’re a proxy for greater working-class power, there is no inconsistency in rejecting police unionism.

Police are not like other workers. It wouldn’t be misplaced to claim they are not workers, period, but rather, managers of class struggle. They belong outside the labor movement, which is where we already find them in instances of increased waves of struggle, repressing anti-racist activists, the Occupy-Wall-Street movement, Standing Rock water defenders, and anyone else who dares demand their rights.

VI.

Let’s not condescend to our boys in blue: very few of their organizations call themselves unions, and neither should we. An argument against engaging with police organizations can be incorporated to weaken other public-sector unions only if we don’t insist on the distinction between the two.

No one wants to shrink an already imperiled labor movement. But allowing police to remain present within the AFL-CIO, or to masquerade as if their fraternities or associations are progressive forces, discourages union growth. We shouldn’t hesitate on this point. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in America, and African-Americans are emerging as the new face of organized labor. It would be a dismissal of the seriousness of racist police brutality to ignore the message it sends people of color to treat the police as legitimate partners in working-class struggle.

Racial justice has always been the leading edge of effective unions — whether it was the IWW’s multiracial organizing in the early years of the labor movement or the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which fought both for union gains against the employer and against the racism of their white union brothers and sisters. In the face of a vibrant anti-racist movement today, one that consciously connects itself to the Fight for $15 and defines itself as pro-union, we should draw on and extend this legacy.

An anti-racist labor movement requires an end to collaboration with the police, and the police offer a critical example of what we on the Left mean when we say we’re pro-union. The beginnings of this conversation are visible in the actions of UAW Local 2685 and Minneapolis teachers, and it’s from these progressive elements within the labor movement that we should take our cues. In an age where company unions are taking advantage of the dearth of nuanced conversations about power to repress worker organizing, we must stop automatically defending any organization that presents itself as a union, and instead, begin rebuilding the power of the working class, as a class.

Extremely Abbreviated Description of One Female’s Pain

1

Last year, a doctor’s aide took my vitals. I sat at ease in a chair, until she told me matter-of-factly that my heart was beating fast enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

Had I exerted myself before going to the doctor, she wanted to know. I hadn’t. The hospital where this doctor was located was out of the way, inaccessible by public transit, so I’d taken an uber to the front door. I’d even taken the elevator to the neurology clinic, shamefully choosing not to walk the two flights of stairs from the main entrance.

“No,” I responded.

“You’re lucky we caught this. I’ll have the doctor talk to you right away.”

2

The only reason anyone caught my heart abnormality was because of my headaches. They’re migraines, technically. I’ve always gotten them, at least since I was a little kid. I’d long ago given up on doing anything about them. But after I had one so bad that I fainted and wound up in the hospital with a skull fracture, I was forced to go through the motions of seeking the cause of the pain. I soon gave up on finding the cause – rather, my doctors soon gave up. So I sought medications that might at least relieve the pain. That’s why I was at a neurology clinic getting my vitals checked.

It feels tired to write about being a woman with headaches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is tiring to be a woman with headaches. I am tired of it.

3

I write too often about fracturing my skull. I reference it compulsively. Only when reading Leslie Jamison’s essay on female pain did I admit to myself why. Jamison quotes from a memoir by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had childhood cancer and whose face was disfigured by it, cause for the title of Grealy’s book: Autobiography of a Face. In it, Grealy writes, “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.”

“Grealy had been craving the identity-locus of damage even before it happened to her; and was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived,” writes Jamison.

For the first few days in the hospital after fracturing my skull, I was torn between fear of dying and self-pity. These are related feelings: self-pity follows from awareness that one is too young to experience fear of dying, and this acknowledgement often strengthens that fear, goading a person to think of all that she will miss should she die.

For me, this manifested as yelling deliriously at a nurse. “You don’t understand, I can’t have a head injury!” I screamed, trying to keep her in my field of vision despite being strapped into a too large neckbrace, which forced me to look straight up at the white ceiling if I wanted to minimize the cutting pain the brace caused as it sliced into my too small, too thin collarbone.

“I finally have a job where I need my brain” I yelled, no longer able to see her.

When the nurse reappeared in my line of vision, I told her to let me check myself out of the emergency room. If I left, I reasoned, the injury would cease to exist. If I was someone not in a hospital, I would no longer be someone who needed to be in a hospital.

I lost consciousness before I could hear her response. Maybe she didn’t respond at all.

I soon acclimated to my new existence as someone confined to a hospital bed, someone who understood how to use a bedpan and who no longer cringed at the needle stuck into her arm every four hours by a blurry amalgam of nurses, made indistinguishable in the darkness of late sterile nights when she, or he, woke me from sleep to prick me for another blood sample. A new feeling came over me, not unconnected to fear or dying or self-pity, but distinct: I felt grateful. Something very bad had happened to me, something no one could deny was terrible. I had a traumatic brain injury. I might not recover. The doctors told me I had a brain hemorrhage. They told me that my spinal fluid could flood the space between my spinal cord and my skull, and that this could kill me.

I did not cease to fear for my life, or wish I hadn’t gotten hurt. But given that I had, I felt precisely what Grealy felt. I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.

4

I know better than that. I know I should be what Jamison calls a “post-wounded” woman. “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood,” she writes, and it’s true.  I fear my parents will read this essay and misunderstand me. That they’ll be hurt, or horrified, because they haven’t read Jamison’s essay, or think my excitement about being an authentically unwell, tragic woman compares in magnitude to my resentment and self-pity about my health. It doesn’t.

And yet…

And yet, I have a new wound; one I could be accused of choosing to prolong for the sake of pity. Ever since fracturing my skull, I’ve become paralyzed at the thought of making an appointment with a new doctor, or keeping up with the old.

I managed it for a year or two. I saw the neurologist, who gave me three different sets of pills for my headaches. I saw the ENT specialist, who explained to me that while I might never get my sense of smell back – a loss that came from a piece of my skull slicing through the nerve endings that translate odor into scent – I might. He wouldn’t say anything more definitive, surely fearing litigation. I saw a therapist, who saw a young woman so wounded as to be unfixable, so she gave me some pills, and I stopped seeing her.  I saw a specialist who was supposed to tell me why I felt dehydrated all the time, which, combined with the migraine, had caused me to faint in the first place. He cut open my lip and sewed it together again, testing for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that was the only explanation he could think of for my dehydration. I can still feel the stitches through my face. When he told me I’d tested negative, I saw someone else, who gave me pills to take three times a day, pills meant to stimulate saliva so my teeth wouldn’t decay, the enamel eroding and rotting the bone at an accelerated rate. I saw a dentist, who saw a thin girl with no enamel left on her teeth. “Are you bulimic,” she asked, adding that repeated exposure to stomach acid erodes one’s teeth. Even when I explained my condition, she seemed to still see a bulimic. I saw my new primary care physician, who helped me coordinate all these doctors, until she didn’t.

So now, I see no one. For the most part, this is okay. But when it comes to the heart abnormality the neurologist found, I never saw a cardiologist. It was over a year ago. I can’t seem to make myself schedule an appointment. When an ex saw me continue putting off the call that could have gotten me an appointment, he first tried to help. Then he gave up. We broke up, with him telling me to “see the doctors already, I don’t understand what is so hard about that.” I told him I would.

When I told the guy I see – “I wouldn’t call us ‘dating,'” he once told me, so I don’t – that it’s been over a year since a nurse discovered my heart abnormality, he told me I should see the doctor. I didn’t respond.

Jamison would probably add me to her cases of women dwelling in woundedness. She would be right. But I’d add – and so would she – that it’s more complicated than that.


Note: I’ll incorporate this essay into a longer piece elsewhere, but I wanted to share it as is in the meantime.

 

My Neighbor

There’s a homeless encampment across the street from my apartment. It’s been expanding since I moved in. At first, it was a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign, hardly noticeable. It’s been accumulating stuff ever since: blankets, a sleeping pad, bags, trash. Stuff.

My room’s been accumulating stuff over the same period of time too: books, clothing, empty coffee cups, receipts, flyers for protests.

I walk past the encampment every day, watching it expand as my life expands here too. There’s hardly ever anyone there. Occasionally, mid-day, I see a rail-thin woman’s head peeking out from under the assorted blankets and sleeping bags. She’s always asleep. When I walk by late at night – 2, 3 am – she’s isn’t there.

I’ve never seen anyone talking to her, or touching any of the things. I live a block from a busy subway station, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. But no one seems to mind the increasing space taken up by my neighbor’s belongings.

Occasionally kids marvel at the stuff as they walk by. There’s a school at the end of the block, so we get a lot of foot traffic. One time, a little girl stopped to look more closely at the pile of trash (I do not call it trash as a judgement, but merely to speak of what much of it consists of now, as it grows: plastic bags, food wrappers, empty cups). Her mom, or older sister, or whoever, tugged on the girl’s shirt, hurrying her along the way adults do when teaching a child how to behave in public. That was the closest I ever got to seeing someone acknowledge the encampment.

New York housing is a nightmare, which I sometimes think is why no one looks perturbed by the woman’s accumulating stuff. The inability to live, to pay rent so as to avoid sleeping outside, is a fear the majority of the city’s residents have, so we can relate. Rents continue to skyrocket, with people pushed further into the distant edges of boroughs. We all then commute in, creating a dilemma for our cities with their failing infrastructure.

Here, that dilemma is becoming a crisis. The MTA is ridden with dysfunction: trains shut down without notice, leading the agency to advise passengers to stop going to work entirely, promising to begin an ‘awareness campaign’ of emailing employers to encourage this ‘solution.’ A video went viral the other day of passengers trapped on the F train, the footage more evocative of a zombie thriller than real images from one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The Governor, Andrew Cuomo, refuses to address the issue, ignoring the thousands of “FIX THE SUBWAY” replies his voters leave to his every tweet. The post-industrial city suffers under its own contradictions: advertised as a post-material economy and under girded by austerity, the city still relies upon the ability of real people to travel through real, not cyber, space, to our real jobs.


I started this essay a few days ago, intending to make it some meditation on public transit or housing. But this evening, on my way home from dinner, I walked by the part of the sidewalk where the encampment should have been. The sidewalk was immaculate; my neighbor’s stuff nowhere to be seen. I stopped walking, with no idea what to do. Had the woman moved on of her own accord? Had someone – the city? a business? a vigilante? one of my other neighbors? – thrown it all away while the woman wasn’t there? I looked around, but no one else seemed perturbed. No one else was even looking in my direction, the foot traffic as steady as ever. There wasn’t a trace of the stuff left. There was nothing I could do. So I crossed the street, put the entry code into my apartment building, and walked inside.

The Tragedy of the Political

I’m writing this the day after two men had their throats slit for refusing to watch a white supremacist berate two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. These men – we now know them as Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53 – intervened. The man who killed them, identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, was yelling slurs at the women. Details are scant, but we know that Christian slit the throats of Namkai-Meche and Best, killing them and stabbing a third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, who is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

It feels insensitive to write about this the day after their deaths. All across this country, people are grieving. Tens of thousands of people are telling Namkai-Meche’s mother that her son was a hero, that she is a hero for raising a man who intervened on behalf of strangers. I don’t mean to claim I have a clever take that you must listen to; I’m grieving too.

To quote an essay written after the 2015 attacks that left over 100 dead in Paris, “If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write think pieces after Paris.” Surely the same can be said after Portland. But if so many acts of violence these days are political, Namkai-Meche and Best’s deaths feel over-determined, inflection points in a time of upheaval where our days are over-saturated, each news cycle overflowing, delivered breathlessly, as if we now exist in a present that is somehow both too fast, impossible to keep up with, even as each day stretches onward like a horizon, full of too many hours, as if time itself is at fault, offering up irresistible opportunities for horror to the world, whose villains can’t help but drop tragedies into our day.

Donald Trump is the president. His election has intensified a lot of problems but after Portland, none feels more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration empowers the far right, vigilantes like Christian, a denizen of those idiotic free-speech rallies who would of course never murder someone, until he did.

And he’s not alone. One week ago, on May 20, Sean Urbanski, a white man, murdered Richard Collins III, a black man who would have graduated from Bowie State University this week, was murdered by Sean Urbanski. He stabbed Collins in the chest and fled the scene. We later found out Urbanski, like Christian, followed the far right.

Then there’s Adam Puriton, 51, a white man accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas on February 24 of this year. At least one bystander claims Puriton shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the victims, who were Indian. Puriton is also accused of wounding Ian Grillot, 24, who was shot while trying to intervene.

These are all racist attacks. Dave Zirin was right to call Collins’s death a lynching. These are all hate crimes. The men who are killing our friends and neighbors are empowered by the election of someone who imbibes fringe far-right beliefs about people of color, then spits them out as policy.

These policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, but they’re having an effect. Despite courts overturning Trump’s “Muslim ban,” visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen – declined by 55 percent compared with a year prior.

As was widely reported yesterday, airstrikes from the US-led coalition killed at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, in Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news broke the same day Christian murdered the two men who dared stop him from shouting anti-immigrant slurs on a Portland train. When Islamophobia is state policy and racism is preached from the Oval Office, it’s no surprise the far-right’s shock troops kill people in cold blood. When the leader of the United States has your back, what is there to lose?

Which is not to let the administrations before Trump off the hook: George W. Bush instituted the PATRIOT Act, putting massive resources into the surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities, not to mention the atrocities perpetrated abroad. Obama perfected drone warfare, normalizing the practice of killing civilians without it tarring his “progressive” or “anti-racist” legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language preferred by our political elites. He admits to what he’s doing and doesn’t apologize for it, emboldening his grassroots following to act on the ideas driving his administration.

For those of us who oppose racism whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, the question arises: what can we do? The answer seems more straightforward, if also more challenging, when it comes to the racism of the state: we oppose Trump’s policies, push for reforms that protect our communities, and challenge the American war machine no matter how it tries to explain away its actions.

But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed while intervening to prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man Puriton shot in Kansas – he was intervening. Are we to put our lives at risk to stand up to bigotry?

I wish I had an answer to that. At one level, the mode of action remains the same: you have to intervene if it feels like the right thing to do, even knowing that this could cause violence to escalate back onto you. I did this just two days ago: a woman was preaching Islamophobia at a diner, and I weighed the costs and benefits to inserting myself into a situation from which I could easily walk away. I intervened. The goal wasn’t to convince a bigot to give up her bigotry, but to make her think twice about spouting it publicly, and to show bystanders that they have comrades who won’t abide by racism. And I’d done it the night before, at a bar in Brooklyn, when a man brought up the Manchester bombing and insisted it was reason to tighten our immigration policies. Fortunately, the bartender was on my side, and told the man he could either shut up or leave, and the man choosing to leave. If this happens that often in New York, bastion of liberalism that it is, I can only imagine those in the country’s heartland are now forced to make these calculations on an increasingly frequent basis.

These recent murders may change that calculus for many of us. That’s natural. The more pressing consideration then moves to the collective level: how do we challenge the far-right as a movement, without restricting our challenges to the occasional rally or march?

That’s a question being discussed now in organizations across the country. How do we prevent racist violence without asking people to risk their safety? How do we broaden the consensus that declares the far right unacceptable, that prevents them from berating our friends and families in a way that isn’t voluntaristic or premised on a willingness to confront the right individually?

It’s a more pressing question than ever, and far be it for me to answer it on behalf of organizations or social movements. But ours is undeniably a present soaked in blood, steeped in intimidation, heavy and deluged, screaming with urgency.

imagination is in short supply these days

Imagination is in short supply these days.

Reality may be more wide open to possibilities we never imagined – a bumbling reality television star is President! – but it feels more constrained than ever.

Which isn’t to say I’m calling for the left to create a blueprint of what the vision we’re fighting for will look like. Marx hardly ever went much further than the following:

“In communist society, where no­body has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accom­plished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general pro­duction and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

That’s about as far as I dare to dream too, and it’s not a bad foundation.

But I’ve been reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, and it’s brought into focus how threadbare our current visions are by contrast. Kelley recounts the dreams of black radicals throughout history, detailing their visions even while acknowledging their flaws. Marcus Garvey dreamed of an Africa that had never existed, but it pushed himself and his peers forward into improvements in the here and now. Askia Muhammed Toure spoke of black R&B artists as “poet philosophers,” their music a weapon in the struggle for black freedom. Aimé Césaire, too, spoke of “poetic knowledge,” which accesses truths otherwise obscured by the grinding oppression of our daily lives.

So maybe those of us without creative talents have always had trouble holding to the utopian visions that drive our daily efforts.  But these days, it feels as if more and more of us are allowing our view of the possible to become unduly narrow. Women’s liberation becomes individual empowerment. Radical debate becomes making fun of the columnist dunces of mainstream liberalism.

I fall victim to it too. As we come up against an increasingly powerful right-wing – one aided and abetted by the center, a Democratic Party that can only ever be structurally responsive to its donor class – the impulse to restrict our horizons is strong. We can barely access reproductive rights in the country’s middle, but we can embarrass the hell out of people online for being sexist. We can’t reverse the trend of ballooning police department budgets, but we can get Good Allies to donate to our pet projects. And so our goals narrow, allowing us to feel victorious without achieving anything.

And I don’t mean to single out the easiest targets among the left. I write mostly about labor, and there’s a dire scarcity of imagination there too. Unions face existential threats: federal right-to-work laws, for instance. But instead of changing their approach: moving to democratize their unions, aid in the sustainability of locals by transferring organizing skills from staffers to the rank-and-file and increasing their organizing budgets for new campaigns, most unions are doing the opposite. They’re slashing their budgets, firing young staffers, tailing Trump’s xenophobic and anti-environment rhetoric, or even worse, endorsing it entirely.

This is how a movement shrivels and dies. Not just the labor movement (although definitely the labor movement) but the left as a whole, all our movements that share an interest in improving the lot of the majority. We reduce socialism to ‘populism.’ We reduce liberation to equality. We trade-in redistribution for equity. Just as the Democrats fail to achieve their political aims by tacking to the right from the start, “negotiating” by ceding ground to their purported conservative opponents, the left undermines ourselves by lowering our horizons. If we allow ourselves to get sucked into what those at the top deem acceptable over what we know is necessary, be it when it comes to taking action on climate change, unions, or fighting racism, we resign ourselves to failure from the start.

More than anyone else, we know we can’t afford that. Carbon taxes aren’t enough to resuscitate our dying planet. Body cameras won’t prevent the police from killing our neighbors. The ACA isn’t adequate to the task of getting millions of the uninsured poor access to health care.

I don’t have answers, and this is not an argument against fighting for reforms. But what I do have is the experience of what it feels like to witness what you thought only the day before was impossible, and how important it is to help people experience that for themselves if we want to keep radical imagination alive.

It’s what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She writes,

“It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question “why Ferguson?” just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when “enough is enough.” The transformation of Mike Brown’s murder from a police killing certainly tipped the scales.”

When Ferguson police officers left Mike Brown’s body on the street for four hours, they pushed the city’s residents over the edge and into an uprising. While that uprising didn’t achieve all its aims, many of the people who participated in it were transformed. The streets became theirs, their friends became comrades, and their dreams of freedom broadened as they experienced what it is to demand change.

The journalist Ryszard Kapuściński describes this process as so powerful that it can set off a revolution. Describing a police officer shouting at a protester to disperse in revolutionary Tehran at the start of the Iranian Revolution, he writes:

“The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts.”

This is what happened in Ferguson, and in so many other cities across the country where we refused to follow orders from police forces that are fundamentally unjust. It’s what I felt during Occupy Wall Street, when ordinary people decided for ourselves what justice meant and in doing so, set ourselves on a path that permanently reoriented our lives toward achieving those aims.

It’s hard to access such visions without involvement in a movement or campaign. To paraphrase poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, it’s only when the clouds clear that we can know the color of the sky, and it’s only by achieving collective gains that we learn what power feels like. But we need not be in Kapuściński’s revolutionary moment to glimpse the possibilities we’re fighting for.

Take the following story of a union victory recounted by R.L. Stephens:

In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.

That feeling of winning against the boss, of wresting power from those you previously thought invulnerable? That’s how our vision for the future stays alive. Become too removed from day-to-day struggles and it’s easy to  retreat into a pessimism that takes reality as it exists and reifies it into the only possible reality that could exist, seeing racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality as inexorable, without an alternative.

It’s why I tell people to get involved in organizing, even in a minor way. It’s through the experience of power, not just by talking and writing about it, that we gain access to the knowledge Cesaire thought might be restricted to poets. It’s why radicals celebrated the mass Women’s March, the airport protests, the BLM rallies. Feeling power in a collective, experiencing the moment of refusal in the face of police orders, demanding a fair share in the face of the boss? That’s the basis for radical imagination.

It’s hard – impossible, even – to hold onto that from behind a computer screen. But we shouldn’t let our visions narrow just because events of the day feel so bleak. Odds have always been against us on the left: that doesn’t mean we should restrict our visions to the possible, rather than the necessary. Don’t forget that, no matter how many people try to tell you otherwise.

No Exceptions

A young black man was shot by a private security officer last night in Canfield, the same apartment complex in Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was killed. I don’t know the details of why he was shot – I didn’t know when I tweeted this thread decrying yet another police shooting in Canfield and I still don’t. I work far too much to keep up on breaking news 24/7. But immediately after tweeting this, the angry losers of the internet began swarming me to gloat. Apparently the man who was shot had a gun, and he wouldn’t put it down. Apparently he was an unsavory character. Apparently blah blah blah. 

But since so many people – both right-wingers and ‘hey-I’m-reasonable-but-I-don’t-get-why-you’d-condemn-this-shooting-when-it-seems-like-this-guy-was-actually-bad’ types – have asked, I’ll explain. When people on the left say that that we think it’s unacceptable that black people – and poor people of every race for that matter – get shot by the police every day, we actually believe it! People getting shot by cops is unacceptable, categorically.

I know a guy who’s a public defender in Roxbury, Boston’s perpetually disinvested in and majority black neighborhood, and he talks about this more clearly than anyone else I’ve met. He’s black, and he says that sometimes his more “respectable” (middle class, often white) acquaintances will ask him how he, a strident civil rights advocate, can bring himself to defend clients guilty of mundane, unglamorous, or downright despicable crimes.

You know how he responds? He says look, that’s civil rights work too. My people are the people in this neighborhood. That includes drug addicts and petty criminals. I don’t care what someone allegedly did: it is an injustice to put poor black people behind bars and it is an injustice to charge them court fees and it is an injustice that they get arrested for doing what white people do but doing it in public because they can’t afford a house to do it in. It’s an injustice that they’re stopped for no reason and that makes it an injustice when police stumble across a crime too. Getting incarcerated is unjust, it doesn’t rehabilitate anyone and it destroys this neighborhood. So I’m proud to keep any and every one out from behind bars, there’s nothing shameful about it.

Right-wingers and racists will see this guy and anyone who agrees with him – myself included – as the enemy, defending the guilty. But when a country’s past, present, and future are categorically weighted in favor of the police and a broken, unjust system of mass incarceration and racial violence, I don’t actually care if a specific black person fucked up, committed a crime, or brandished a weapon. It’s correct to say ‘police, not to mention private security officers, shouldn’t shoot people.’ They shouldn’t be so trigger happy. They shouldn’t have so many guns in the first place. An apartment complex shouldn’t hire private security forces. The people at Canfield in Ferguson shouldn’t have to see another young member of their community felled by an officer. The black and poor shouldn’t be residentially segregated in the first place. I could go on indefinitely but you get the picture.

If the right-wing’s true believers have a virtue over the empty opportunism of the center, it’s a willingness to stick to their beliefs. But those of us on the left aren’t without principles either. The main difference is that our solidarity lies with the oppressed, no matter what.

 

The First Week

I feel like I’ve hardly had time to breathe this week. I don’t even get out of bed sometimes: upon waking, I open my laptop and start responding to emails, DMs, slack channels, facebook messenger. The sun goes up and then down again as I sit, hunched, glued to the screen.

Just in my tiny slice of the world, Trump’s impact is already being felt. Unions are pulling out of organizing campaigns. Colleagues who have been helping organize our union may be stuck in Iran. Friends are losing their jobs, their research funding, their confidence that any of our work matters.
 
And they’re right to be afraid! It’s scary to imagine the damage this administration will inflict in lives lost, progress undone, bonds of solidarity disentangled. Yet if we give up, the disasters will only multiply.
 
As for how Trump is impacting our movements, I can only speak about labor. In the face of will be a multi-pronged attack – mass privatizations, federal right-to-work laws, and the loss of the NLRB – what’s becoming clear is how little leadership union “leaders” offer us. In the face of attacks the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly a century, leaders are huddling together, turning inward when we need precisely the opposite.

So, what does that mean for the grassroots? It means that at the end of the day, we only have each other and the camaraderie and strength we’ve built as workers to think on our feet even as institutions and laws dissolve around us. If unions care about the labor movement, they’ll transfer organizing skills as quickly as possible to workers, they’ll admit new ways of thinking into their ranks. And if not? Well, we’ve been here before, before we built unions and pushed for legal protections and all the rest; we can do it again.
 
I’m confident the same can be said for the feminist movement, the anti-police brutality movement, the environmental movement, and every other social movement that’s been under siege this week. Established institutions, be they the Democratic Party, unions, or non-profits, will try to accommodate the new administration as best they can, throwing those of us who can’t fit into the administration’s deeply limited bounds of acceptability under the bus. And we’ll have to be distinct from these backroom deals: more mobilized than ever, more democratic than ever, if we actually want to build a resistance that can force concessions and reversals from this administration. We’ll have to welcome in the flood of people who want to fight the agenda on offer because after all, the only way any of us learned anything was through struggle, so we can’t expect the thousands flooding into our movements to be any different.

No matter what those at the top do – and all indications that the Democrats are the worst of the worst when it comes to spineless collaboration with the right – we can’t forget that we, the people on the ground and in the street and the workplace and the clinic, are the ones who built each and every worthwhile institution in this country. We forced labor protections into law. We created underground abortion networks until we freed up enough room for above ground clinics to operate. We welcomed refugees with open arms.

It’s scary to consider how much today feels like what I hoped was a long-gone era of reaction. But now more than ever, we need to remember our history. When it comes to everything Trump and his ghastly bands of ghouls are hellbent on destroying, we built it all in the first place. If need be, we can build it back up again. That may not be the sexiest message on offer, but it’s the truth.