USA, USA

I’ve avoided writing about the conventions because both the Republican and Democratic parties disgust me – no point in driving myself mad elaborating on that in writing when it’s the topic of so many of my daily conversations.

But I was taken aback to turn on the broadcast tonight to see General John Allen, the former Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, proclaiming a vision of shared values that includes “all ethnicities, races, and faiths,” set to a backdrop of veterans and a roaring “USA” chant from the crowd. This man and his armed forces have the blood of so many brown people on his hands. Other brown people or gay people killing those people is still people killing people.

This man proclaimed proudly that “the American military will continue to be the shining example of America at our very best,” and will not “become an instrument of torture.” Surely he knows our military does engage in war crimes, indefinite detention, and systematically rapes women, including their fellow female soldiers. And yet, the crowd carried on chanting: “USA, USA.” Reportedly this chant gained strength as a way to cover up scattered chants of “No More War” from some of the Sanders delegates. If anything, that anti-war sentiment is beyond decorum at the convention only makes it worse.

“To our enemies: We will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us.” he concluded, and the crowd went wild. As only America can? I can only presume this is a reference to the US military’s ability to flout international war conventions, with drone strikes occasionally killing even our own citizens alongside dozens and dozens of innocents from other countries. People celebrating weddings, people whose only crime is existence outside our borders: that is what John Allen means by pursuing our enemies “as only America can.”

Militaristic embrace of the same old US exceptionalism recast in a multicultural sheen. A set of “principles” broad enough to allow Democratic leadership to invite NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to speak on the same stage as the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland. This the truth of the Democratic Party. This is it’s core – more pernicious than the GOP because it is superficially diverse. No, these parties are not the same. Yes, in many ways, Trump is worse than Clinton. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the election cycle so unapologetically repugnant to convince enough of us that neither the Republicans or the Democrats are for us. These are their parties, the rich donors who power both. All we have is each other.

But by definition, the numbers are on our side. We just have to get as organized as the people we’re up against.

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.

re: free speech on college campuses

As I’ve noted previously, the absence of campus Zionists from the countless think pieces on campus activism and the right to free speech is glaring.

My view on the supposed conflict between the right to free speech and the right to equality across race/gender/sexualities is that it doesn’t exist, and we shouldn’t cede to the conservative framing of this debate as one in which these two aims are intractably opposed. Instead, we can (and should) argue that, in the case of current anti-racist protests, students are advocating for free speech by agitating for the conditions that would allow black students to freely exercise their speech. That rather than the ‘coddled’ enemies of speech they dislike, black students are defending this right which is being denied them. Having said this, the debate will nonetheless continue to operate as it is, what with the majority of media outlets serving fundamentally conservative societal functions. This being the case, we must start analyzing how the tactical censorious being displayed by a small subset of progressive activists is becoming the preferred tactic of a very different sort of campus activist: Zionists.

As yet another example of how effectively Zionists are using the censorious discourse of a right to feel safe on campus as a means for shutting down BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) initiatives, the following is an email UC Santa Cruz students just received:

“On college campuses across the country, students are engaged in challenging but necessary conversations with administrators about race, religion, ethnicity, and identity.

At their best, challenging incidents can usher in long overdue changes that promote greater understanding and equality. At their worst, they can exacerbate tensions and contribute to what some experience as a hostile environment.

Globally, we’re seeing how hatred can lead to unimaginable acts of violence.

Nationally, students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement stood in solidarity with their peers at the University of Missouri who are protesting widespread racism on that campus and working toward meaningful change.

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.

We have a commitment at UC Santa Cruz to engaged, respectful dialogue. The free and open exchange of ideas is a pillar of our Principles of Community.

I am convening my Chancellor’s Diversity Advisory Council to discuss the climate for Jewish students on campus. The council has advocated for African American students, LGBT students, and the disabled members of our community, among others, and I want to be sure our campus community welcomes and supports Jewish students, faculty, and staff. I will share my thoughts about that conversation as it unfolds.

Universities are microcosms of our complex, diverse global society. With so many differences, the opportunities for division are endless. Instead, let us make the conscious choice to seek common ground, to forge understanding, and to cultivate compassion. By doing so, we will model the way for the world-a laudable and fitting goal for UC Santa Cruz.”

This administration has made use of radical organizing in support of black students to stifle a pro-Palestine initiative. These two struggles are deeply connected; to position them as opposed is a political move that needs to be argued against. As for me, I’m gonna keep arguing against whoever wants to censor speech they dislike – but more than nine times out of ten, that means I’m gonna be arguing with Zionists.

 

The Black Lives Matter Movement and The Boston Olympics

With the nation bursting at the seams against the scourge that is police violence against the Black community, Boston residents have been vocal in pushing for greater community control of the police, as well as the host of socioeconomic changes that could lead to the abolition of policing entirely. If we want to continue making progress towards these ends, we must issue an absolute refusal to host the 2024 Olympics. Failure to defeat the 2024 bid will mean relinquishing the little control we have over local police forces while simultaneously allowing these forces greater access to weaponry and surveillance mechanisms. The result of such a defeat won’t surprise many: our city will see an uptick in state harassment and violence against Boston’s PoC, poor, and LGBTQ communities that constitute the vast majority of this city’s residents.

This line of argumentation was powerfully delivered at a June 2nd forum on the negative consequences mega sporting events have on the cities that host them. Organized by No Boston 2024, one of the two Olympics opposition groups (though a leading member of the other opposition group attended), the event featured Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, alongside Dave Zirin, the powerhouse sports editor at The Nation, who claimed to have reported on (critically, of course) every Olympics since 9/11.

While I could write a book on what Zirin said, it was Crockford’s presentation of the linkage between the Black Lives Matter movement and a 2024 Olympics that stood out to me as someone aware of the immense flurry of anti-police brutality organizing happening in this city. While I had intuited the link that leads from a Boston Olympics to greater policing and surveillance, I hadn’t understood the extent to which this link will become a border widening the already huge gap in living conditions for Boston’s (disproportionately white) rich and Boston’s (disproportionately PoC) poor.

To make this connection stick, Crockford began by discussing the legacy of the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC), which was held in Boston. Reminding the audience of how many surveillance cameras monitor our city’s public spaces, Crockford explained that their origins stem from the DNC. While justified to the public at the time as necessary tools for the uniquely high-risk Convention, these cameras remain today. As Crockford rightly emphasized, rarely do security forces willingly relinquish policing and surveillance gadgetry once they have their hands on them. Although such surveillance technology has long existed, political norms in liberal Boston prevented its widespread deployment until a National Special Security Event, or NSSE, came to town. NSSE, as explained by Crockford, is a designation created by Bill Clinton, who came up with the category to signal a ‘high-security’ (read: high surveillance and policing) event. Upon receiving this designation, responsibility for  ‘security’ shifts from local police forces, as broken and lethal as they may be in their own right, to the Secret Service. Crockford laughed while explaining this, reminding the audience of this agency’s total incompetence.

Once policing power transfers to the Secret Service, Boston residents will no longer have claim to any transparency or accountability from these forces. While I agree with writers who have called for the abolition of all police, the Secret Service doesn’t even have to pretend to listen to our complaints or concerns. Giving it jurisdiction over our city will be a step backward in our struggle. An opaque centralized operation, federal security forces act in anonymity, fully separate from the communities they terrorize. During an NSSE, the DNC being one such example, our attention is directed by media and politicians alike to the purported action, be it Olympic gymnastics or the political carnival that is the DNC, and when our view is fixed on that spectacle, security forces move toward greater coordination between agencies, rolling out controversial technologies and weapons in the process.

In 2004, these changes left our city a legacy of video cameras, to which the FBI retains access, as well as a nasty taste in our mouths that came from the “festering boil” that was the ‘Free Speech Zone’ for the Convention’s protestors, a wire cage under a highway, to which all residents and visitors critical of the Democrats (recall, this was immediately after the Iraq War, a disaster supported by Democrat and Republicans alike) were directed. Further, the normalization of ‘random’ bag checks at Boston area train stations began with the DNC. Today, these checks remain, no longer purportedly serving as preventative counter-terrorism measures, but rather, as a source of surveillance for Boston’s large immigrant community, with the predominately latino/a community of East Boston one such neighborhood regularly subject to the whim of these unwarranted searches.

The BPD won’t have ultimate authority on ‘security’ strategies, and can be guaranteed to use their subordination to claim innocence as complaints against police harassment multiply in the lead up to the 2024 Games. However, they will retain the toys brought to them from federal agencies. As Zirin mentioned at the forum, international arms dealers live for these mega events, and there’s no chance that the BPD will miss out on a chance to imitate their big brothers, the NYPD, and stock up on any goodies they can get their hands on.

It is important to think about this future in connection to the murder of Usaama Rahim on the morning of June 1st by FBI and BPD agents, under the guise of a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and alongside the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative. Boston is one of a handful of cities host to a pilot CVE program, and as many of the city’s Muslim residents can attest, CVE has provided one more excuse for blanket state surveillance of Muslim communities. Rahim was under 24 hour surveillance when he was approached by the multi-agency police team, despite not having been charged with a crime, and as a Black Muslim, Rahim was also a target for BPD’s racial profiling. While we continue waiting for authorities to release the tape of Rahim’s murder, it’s clear that the introduction of JTTF, CVE, and FBI decreases the transparency of policing and surveillance in our cities, allowing a dead man to be labelled a terrorist simply due to the presence of this federal alphabet soup at his murder scene.

As for the 2024 Boston Olympics, it will surely be designated an NSSE. Boston’s poor and PoC residents will be surveilled and harassed with greater frequency and intensity than they are currently (which in today’s United States, is saying a lot). Meanwhile Mayor Walsh’s controversial anti-sex trafficking initiative will likely kick into high gear, creating a terror amongst the city’s sex workers and LGBTQ population alike, the latter being regularly targeted by policing under the guise of anti-prostitution laws, with the trans population, and particularly trans-WoC, disproportionately subject to such arrests. Whether the people of Boston will benefit from any of the purported improvements that come from hosting a mega-event is unknown (though I suggest readers pick up Zirin’s recent book for a contemporary account that might answer that question), what we do know is that the majority of Bostonians will become targets in their own neighborhoods, trespassers in their own public spaces.

Just a few blocks from my Roxbury home, there are basketball courts. When the weather’s nice enough, as it is today, dozens of youth from my neighborhood gather to play pickup games. And no matter how few or many people are at the courts, there’s always at least one BPD vehicle idling nearby, the officers looking on as Roxbury’s youth play ball. No matter how many times Boston 2024 Committee member and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish talks about the “transformative power of sport” during one of Boston 2024’s sham community meetings, I know that he isn’t referring to my neighbors’ sports. If he were, he’d know that come the Olympics, there’ll be no time or space left for basketball, with police forces lining up to stop-and-frisk this city’s athletes while blocking off our public spaces to better ensure NSSE ‘security.’

The path our city will head down if we host the Olympics is one of cascading negative effects for all but the wealthiest residents. We’ve already begun down that path, as anyone looking at rent prices knows, and it’s already unacceptable. By mobilizing now, we can reverse this dynamic: rather than being pushed out ourselves, we can show the IOC just how inhospitable Boston is for them and the security circus that surrounds them. This city’s people have enough battles to fight as it is, and there’s no way we’re going to take on even greater obstacles just so Fish and his international counterparts can enjoy a party nine years from now.

Baltimore and Urban Rebellions

Images via @byDVNLLN
Images via @byDVNLLN

Video of cops throwing bricks thrown by protesters back at them, launching tear gas at high school students, beating photographers, and shooting bystanders with rubber bullets: all this is going on in Baltimore right now in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder by the Baltimore Police Department.

All this makes today a day to bear in mind that it was inner-city rebellions (rebellions, not riots) in the 1960s that gave much of the world a view into the unbearable conditions in which the black population in this country exists. The result was incomplete and partial progress, but progress that would not have happened had it not been for communities acting back against their oppression. By refusing to acknowledge the authority of the state as embodied in its coercive forces, and making themselves ungovernable, these communities unmasked the reality that it is the people, not those in power, who decide when political change will happen.

At times this must take the form of an absolute break with previous reality, even if this means violence. As anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon once wrote, “from birth it is clear to [the oppressed] that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.” He goes on to specify that rather than initiated by the oppressed, violence is a learned practice, etched deep into oppressed psyches by their experience of the violence of white supremacy. As Fanon writes, white supremacy “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” While we who participate in extra-institutional  or street politics can criticize violence as strategic error, and I don’t think we can rely on violence to defeat what amounts to nearly infinite instruments of violence held by the US state (and in truth, no one I know in these movements is naive enough to believe we can win by violence alone), condemnations of political violence as immoral can only be directed at the violence of the state if we want our critiques are to maintain logical consistency. And yes, the targeting of police, corporate chains, and payday loan stores is by all means a political choice.

Dilapidated housing, bad schools, police brutality, and a lack of jobs for urban communities went from the periphery to the center of US political priorities in the wake of the 1960s rebellions. The US government poured billions more dollars into housing in an attempt to regain its footing over the cities. A pillar of their multi-pronged strategy, it was the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program that so threatened the state that the government institutionalized the idea, severing any mention of where the program came from but revealing the tenuousness of state legitimacy against the Panthers in the process. In Watts, even a former CIA director, John McCone, in his state-funded McCone Commission, found the cause of that city’s 1965 rebellion to be ” high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions for African Americans in Watts.” Similar reports with similar findings were filed for many other U.S. cities.

Freddie Gray, and hundreds of black men, women, and LGBTQ individuals die senseless deaths in this country each year at the hands of the police. Being black in the United States is a game of Russian roulette with the forces that occupy black communities (not to mention the Zimmermanite vigilantes who emulate them). Black youth are forced to be conscious of their mortality in a way I, as a white kid, never was. It is in this context that youth in Baltimore are fighting for their freedom and humanity. It’s important to support them in that – be it through sending bail money or amplifying their voices – and to turn your eyes to your city at the end of the day. While you might have to squint real hard to find them, as no one with power voluntarily acknowledges their existence, there are youth in your own backyard trying to achieve freedom too, and now’s the time to offer your support to them in whatever way you can. Not rhetorically, I mean, take on some of the risk which is currently overwhelmingly hanging over the black population every day. If they win, we all win, as the only people who benefit from the perpetuation of a white supremacist capitalist system are those at the very top. The police are one key instrument in the reproduction of that system, birthed into existence as slave catchers and forces for disciplining the poor, so to diminish their power – or disband them entirely- is to make progress. Do you have cash? Graphic design skills? A car? A law degree? A public platform? All that, that’s what you offer up. And if you read this far, I know at the least you’ve got free time to offer.

Angelo West and Why All Black Lives Matter

A recent piece by Boston Globe Columnist Kevin Cullen, titled “Three Strikes and He Was Out On Streets Again,” is horrifyingly misguided, but if you can stomach it, it’s worth reading in order to think through the political understandings underlying the argument.

The author writes of the man killed by police two days ago in Roxbury, MA that “guys like Angelo West don’t get out of prison…and take apartments in the Seaport, [a wealthy area of rapid development in Boston]…they come back to neighborhoods like Roxbury” and that residents should direct their anger at “a criminal justice system that allows people like Angelo West…to flit in and out of jail like some kind of way station, a minor inconvenience.”

This, when the premise of Cullen’s piece is that West was so determined not to return to jail that he was willing to give up his life to avoid that fate. Now, there’s no evidence of this assertion, unless you believe Cullen has access to a murdered man’s final thoughts, but this contradictory argument comes from the fact that the author cannot bring himself to acknowledge West’s humanity. However, the truth is that West was just as human as the author and acted with the same considerations Cullen, you, or me, use to make decisions. To believe otherwise is to embrace the hold racist imagery has over you. It’s to imagine a black man is not human, but animal, with mental processes that function fundamentally differently than the rest of humanity.

As to the former quote, with Cullen decrying (guys, he’s on your side!) West’s return to Roxbury, Cullen elides the critique implicit in his statement. First, it’s important to break down just what Cullen means by “guys like Angelo West.” While the author would likely be the first to assert that his phrase means “criminals” or “monsters,” and not “poor black men,” this claim fails any test of logic. Wealthy white criminals often return to their life of wealth and independence immediately upon release from prison, that is, if they’re even forced to serve time in the first place (spoiler alert: they almost never are) .

“Sure,” one can imagine Cullen saying, conceding the point, decades-long crime reporter that he is, “but I meant monsters, the real dangers to society.” To this I’d point him no further abroad than the case of our hometown boy, Mark Wahlberg. At 15, Wahlberg attacked black school children, throwing rocks at them while shouting racial slurs, and at 16, he blinded a Vietnamese man, and once apprehended by police, shouted racial slurs at the man in their presence. Wahlberg is now famously seeking a pardon from the state for his crimes, and most interesting for the purposes of this piece, is his citing the problems his criminal record is causing for his business ventures. If even a white celebrity feels the heat of discrimination that comes with a record, we can only imagine what this means for those without household names.

So, here we have a clear cut case of a heartless monster, yelling racial epithets as his victim bled on the ground, and yet, I doubt Cullen supports re-incarcerating Wahlberg, just in case he returns to his old ways.

Similarly, Cullen wrote a cringe-inducing puff piece for the Boston Globe on New York Police Commissioner William Bratton in the wake of the killing of two NYPD officers. In this article, we see Bratton getting a shoe shine in Manhattan and having inebriated men “broomed” by a few cops because of their “obnoxious behavior,” all without having to get out of his chair.

“Classic Bratton,” Cullen writes. Know what else is classic Bratton? Overseeing a police department that drives motorcycles through a law-abiding crowd, injuring dozens in the process. Yet, from my investigation into Cullen’s bylines, he’s never written of the necessity of reforming the criminal justice system to ensure Police Commissioners like Bratton serve jail time for such massacres. This is unsurprising for most of us, however, because when we read “guys like Angelo West,” we know that Cullen actually means poor black men, which ultimately amounts to black people, when you realize that one in three black men are in the criminal justice system at any given moment. While black women aren’t jailed at the same rate as black men, they are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women, and within a patriarchal society that continues to view women as mere appendages of men, they are often penalized for any romantic, familial, or even accidental association with black men labelled criminal, suffering incarceration, surveillance, or theft of their property by the state, a process known as asset-forfeiture.

Now that we’ve disambiguated “guys like Angelo West” to mean “poor black men,”  Cullen’s statement translates to “poor black men don’t get out of prison and…take apartments in the Seaport,” and it becomes a truism, a descriptive statement of the structural conditions of our society rather than any commentary on West’s proclivities and choices. “Neighborhoods like Roxbury” are the necessary obverse to the image Boston’s elites sell the world. A racialized and concentrated space of poverty, “neighborhoods like Roxbury” are the only place most poor black individuals with criminal records can move. Banking, mortgage, and insurance companies ensure this in a discriminatory process called ‘redlining’ which continues to this day. Contextualize his mythical “guys like West” in a structurally racist and geographically segregated city like Boston and Cullen’s statement turns into an admission of these societally-sanctioned constraints. Add in well-documented employer discrimination against black job applicants, and applicants with criminal records, which shows that white men with criminal records are more likely to be hired than black men without records, and you have a system pushing the black population into impossible circumstances.

West was free to choose how to respond to these conditions and on Friday it seems he chose to shoot an officer, but we can acknowledge this while discussing how his choices were shaped by this reality. The reason he was tailed and stopped by police, while I, a white person who lives less than a mile from where he was killed, have never been similarly stopped, is because of the BPD’s racially discriminatory practices. In telling Roxbury residents to focus on criminal justice reform, Kevin Cullen reveals his complete lack of information about these residents. Many of them already focus on criminal justice reform. Their goals range from reform to prison abolition, which many see as the only way to shake off the occupying force that patrols their neighborhoods. To Cullen, and readers who still find his narrative compelling, I recommend you read the links in this article before dismissing those who argue that Angelo West’s murder does, in fact, have everything to do with black lives mattering.