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.

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.

Domestic Violence and the Anti-Police Brutality Movement

Listen to a police scanner for a few hours and you’ll notice a pattern: there are a lot of calls about domestic violence. In fact, there are more calls about domestic violence than anything else.

No surprise; many of us already know domestic violence is common. Yet the subject has been largely absent from discussion in the movement against police brutality.

A significant wing of the movement wants to ultimately abolish the police, or at least render them redundant: defunded, demilitarized. But the number one reason we invite cops into our communities despite knowing the dangers we expose ourselves and our neighbors to by doing so remains outside the purview of the movement.

Domestic violence is exceedingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when it happens. When a loved one, more often than not a man, inflicts violence on his partner or family member, more often than not a woman, victims or bystanders have very little time to take action to minimize the harm. Who can blame them for calling the police, the rapid-response force our society has in place for just such emergencies?

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge how futile calling the police can be, even if one doesn’t object to the police at an institution. In an astounding number of cases, cops respond to domestic violence calls by arresting the victim, or both the victim and perpetrator. They can insist on arresting someone even if, as Matthew Desmond points out in Evicted, it results in the eviction of the victim from her residence.

And lest we forget, many cops are perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Studies have found police officers abuse their loved ones anywhere from two-to-four times the national rate. This heightened proclivity for violence – whether preexisting their time on the force or a product of cop culture – means cops are hardly the group we should look to for help in situations of domestic violence. Further, research finds cops commit sexual assault and violence against predominately women, predominantly vulnerable women – i.e. women of color, working class women, and sex workers – at alarming rates. These are the same women disproportionately affected by domestic violence.

All this adds up to a sense that when shit hits the fan at home, calling the police can be a recipe for disaster.

The anti-police brutality movement enters at this point in the story, rightfully pointing out that calling the police, particularly in communities of color, places you and your community at risk of police brutality. Prison abolitionists proclaim a need to stop allowing police into neighborhoods. One thinks back to the Black Panthers chant: “no more pigs in our community!”

If we want to make these demands more than slogans, we have to think about what an alternative system for addressing domestic violence, a problem afflicting all of our neighborhoods, would look like.

I’m not even close to the first to think about this. In 1979 in Boston, where I live, residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, predominately black neighborhoods, instituted a system of safe houses to offer an alternative to calling the police for victims of domestic violence. The safe houses – indicated by a green porch light – were open to people escaping violence at home, promising a safe haven in the home of a community member trained in handling domestic abuse victims.

This system prefigured today’s complex of non-profits, some of which offer similar, if more formalized, spaces for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, safe havens cannot address those few moments when violence erupts at home, nor do they enjoy the robust backing of the state, reliant instead on grants and philanthropy for sustenance.

I don’t know the answer to what changes we can or should demand of the state that might render the police unnecessary in situations of domestic violence. For the moment, many people don’t call the police in situations of domestic violence for all the reasons I’ve mentioned –cops are ineffective, cops threaten further violence, cops can be cause for eviction, etcetera – preferring to come up with whatever liveable compromise they can in a difficult situation. But to pretend this isn’t of relevance to a movement against police violence and for police abolition is to sweep the concerns of victims of domestic violence under the rug, something we, in these intersectional times, cannot possibly countenance.

Broken Record

In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:

“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?

During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.

The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”

Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?

Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.

Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.

How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.

As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have  “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.

By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.

And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.

It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”

If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.

This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?

The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.

We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?

Left-Wing Language for Your Right-Wing Needs!

Because I hate myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching language created by the left get taken up by the right. Conservatives are wielding the language masterfully, leaving many well meaning progressives disoriented and asserting the righteousness of any cause that comes packaged in the correct words, forgetting that language is meant to advance our goals, to serve us, not the other way around.

I’m not the first to note that a lot of activists today are fixated on language and that with this comes a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting iced out of a movement. The flip side of this is that when someone speaks the right words, we assume it means they’re one of us. But there’s a problem: language can be learned by anyone, it can be taught in business seminars and in online forums. If we don’t subordinate language to the material changes we’re fighting for, we lose the ability to draw clear lines between us and them.

Who’s Doing This?

Zionists are the cutting edge when it comes to hitching progressive language to reactionary ends. For the past few years, the attention of the American Zionist movement has been focused on college campuses. Campuses are bellwethers of broader political trends, making what happens on campus important for those concerned with future societal developments. For Zionists, it’s the growth of pro-Palestine groups and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement that’s the most worrying. Their response is a case study in the use of left-wing language by right-wing assholes.

Take the first #StopBDS Conference hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN and World Jewish Congress at the UN headquarters in New York this week (that’s right: a UN conference with a hashtag in the name – welcome to 2016). As Rania Khalek reported from this gathering of the trolls, the speakers struck a repetitive message: “Speak left,” said Frank Luntz. “Speak the language of the left,” reiterated Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students.

What does a Zionist “speaking left” look like? On campus, it means yoking one’s Jewish identity to support for Israel and then claiming to feel “unsafe” in response to pro-Palestine organizing. The impulse to make this claim comes from the rise of progressive students demanding ‘safe spaces’ for members of oppressed identities. While I’m not opposed to this, as it comes from the long and ugly history of violence against the oppressed by those with privilege, as I’ve said before, this demand is becoming one of the prefered tactics of campus Zionists.

A letter sent out by the university chancellor to UC Santa Cruz students offers a great example. Here’s an excerpt:

“On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.”

The chancellor invokes the campus history of social justice, positioning himself as a progressive. From there, he brings up the student union’s resolution in favor of BDS and insists this may make Jewish students feel “alienated” and “less welcome.”

More accurate would be to say the resolution could make Zionists feel unwelcome. But the chancellor’s conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israel allows him to invoke a discourse of safety for oppressed identities as the bludgeon that it often becomes; a human shield, as it were, against criticism. That this conflation inflames anti-Semitism is curiously not a concern of these douchebags, who are happy to pretend all Jews support Israel. Much better to take what power you can from the discourse of oppressed groups and use it to cover for support for an apartheid state. And that’s what makes black Zionists like Chloe Valdary doubly valuable for Israel, as they can make additional claims to the need for safety, cynically counterposing black and Palestinian struggles – a particularly coveted trait when these movements are forging stronger ties.

To take another egregious example, let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

A while back, Clinton’s team produced a chart of “intersections.” Indecipherable, it invoked the necessary know-how of the language of intersectionality as a signal to voters: “Clinton’s with it,” it shouted. No matter that the chart was absurd and that Clinton’s policies have and will continue to reinforce, not undo, oppression. No matter that Clinton doesn’t even pay her interns, who more likely than not are overwhelmingly women.

As she asked at a campaign rally in February, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make immigrants feel more welcome?”

“No!” her audience responded, but this cheeky remark was to a strawman – no one, not Bernie Sanders, not even weirdos on the internet, claims it will. But it’s enough to know the language for Clinton, to “speak left” as Luntz put it.

Fortunately, most working people aren’t fooled by this insincerity. We want redistribution. We want real feminist and antiracist gains: abortion on demand, universal health care, union protections and a $15 minimum wage for home care and fast food workers, defunding the police and an end to mass incarceration. Clinton won’t offer these but her cynical deployment of the language of the left is a feignt to pretend otherwise, and a quick look at the unbearable Clinton supporters penning articles about her radicalism is evidence that this is convincing a fair number of voters.

Why Does This Matter?

As usual, Adolph Reed Jr said it best: “[identity] politics is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” What he means by it is that rather than countering a strawmanned ‘class-first’ politics – the ‘break up the banks and stop there’ fantasy evoked by Clinton -the language of identity politics is elastic enough to incorporate the bourgeoisie along with the working class, particularly when it uncritically links identities to political ideologies.

It’s how we get the “black misleadership class” in Reed’s terms, bourgeois African Americans purportedly speaking on behalf of “the black community.” By pretending this community isn’t internally riven by class divides, this essentialized view of a definitionally progressive blackness lets the black bourgeoisie fill the symbolic role of a black voice, immune from criticism by their allies, who are told to shut up and listen, not question the political credentials of the speaker. This doesn’t just cause chaos at the level of institutional politics, though it does that too. It also opens up space for incoherence and misleadership in movements.

As Douglas Williams put it, “we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle.” While Williams is writing of the need to build a broader, more effective movement, the phenomena he’s referring to – the belief that the oppressed shouldn’t be criticised – is not only linked to a condescending belief that oppressed groups can’t argue their views, it hands a cover to conservative projects as long as they’re led by members of an oppressed group.

Teach for America is one of the most prominent organizations to take advantage of this opening. As Drew Franklin detailed at Orchestrated Pulse, Teach for America faced a “race problem” in the wake of the devastation of the New Orleans public school system. In Franklin’s words, this led it to “re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.”” Yet again switching out the substantive and often socialist demands of the civil rights movement for symbols, TFA could claim membership under the umbrella of social justice just as long as it had enough people of color on its payroll and knew the right words to use.

I can’t help but think that was the purpose of a recent event hosted by TFA Massachusetts. Titled “#StayWoke: Social Justice through Hashtag Activism,” the event promised to help attendees struggle for racial justice, even as the organization hosting it eviscerates black communities across the country. Want to know someone who looks like he attended one of these trainings? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pictured here wearing a shirt that reads #StayWoke while speaking with TFA alum and black misleader-par-excellence Deray McKesson despite the fact that Twitter has a severe diversity problem.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. Neoliberalism, capital, or university administrations have no problem accommodating symbols. New language can be learned by hiring a social justice consultant, new faces can coexist with old in high places, granted the majority remain shut out. It’s calls for redistribution that don’t jive with the status quo but these are ignored in favor of those demanding the easily assimilable.

Aviva Chomsky skillfully addresses this in the context of the university in a recent piece. “While schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives,” she writes, they’ve incorporated the more symbolic and individualized demands “into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking.” Those demanding changes of language – apologies, inclusive rhetoric, an end to microaggressions – are recognized while those advocating for prison divestment  or an increase in material support for students from oppressed groups are shut out.

The critical stance I and the writers I’m quoting adhere to isn’t a condemnation of anti-racism or feminism as such – I support both the symbolic and redistributive demands of college students. Rather, as Ben Norton wrote in a post on Reed and identity politics, it’s “a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs, like race or gender, rather than on material conditions.” If we focus our politics around achieving material changes, this necessarily entails fighting oppression wherever it appears. But to hitch this struggle to redistribution prevents those opposed to this project from claiming the mantle of social justice.

Where Does This Leave Us?

First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame those confused by this rhetoric – indeed, I was one of them until very recently. These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion. And I’ve seen it happen: either these activists enter into non-profits and lose sight of radical movement work altogether, or they give up completely, shifting into a consumption or lifestyle politics. If we want stronger movements, we need to argue against these politics.

But for those in positions of power – people like Luntz or Clinton, groups like TFA – cynically emptying out the force of these anti-capitalist words, we should be merciless in denying them access to this cover. Where those in power seek to insulate themselves from criticism by invoking the language of the left, we need to insist on placing these words back in the context from which they came: the struggle against capital and for the oppressed. By refusing to bestow any magic on words, we can render them useless to the powerful and in doing so, make the sides in this fight unmistakably clear.

i’m beginning to think of the MBTA as a criminal operation

Okay, maybe I’m being over-dramatic. But in my defense, I just stood at Ruggles station for 40 minutes with nearly 100 other people waiting for the 28 or 23, buses that go through Dudley Square to Mattapan and Ashmont, respectively. It was windy, maybe 35 degrees out with some cold rain. A lot of people had little kids with them.

Lately the 28, which is always a double-length bus, has been a single bus. That means would-be riders get stranded at stops once the bus is so full that no more people could possibly fit inside. If I’m being honest, that regularly happens with the double buses too, but with these single buses? Abandon all hope.

I won’t deny that my annoyance at having spent so much time in the freezing cold tonight is part of my motivation in writing this, but most of the urge comes from a far larger objection to the recent decision by those who run the MBTA to raise the fare by nearly 10%. Our train cars are some of the oldest and most unsafe in the country, and for those of us on the bus lines, particularly in the poorest parts of the city, the situation is even worse. The census tracts that the 28 and 23 drive through are some of the poorest in Boston, as well as overwhelmingly black and Latino (out of the crowd waiting for the bus, I spotted only two other people who looked white besides myself). Tonight, having spent a while listening to moms worry to strangers about their kids getting sick from being outdoors for so long in the wind and rain – in one of the richest cities in the United States – I can’t help but think of the people “running” (read: neglecting) this public transit system as, at best, criminally incompetent.

If they were driving the bus I’m writing this from, the one I waited so long for, we would have already crashed.