My Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Tragedy of the Political

I’m writing this the day after two men had their throats slit for refusing to watch a white supremacist berate two women, one of whom was reportedly 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 daily news is 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 our president. His election has intensified a number of concerning problems but after Portland, none is more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration has empowered the far-right, vigilantes like Christian, a wingnut, a denizen of those idiotic free speech rallies who would never murder someone, until he did.

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

Then there is 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 Feburary 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’ death a lynching. All of these are 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 and institutionalizes them into policy.

While these policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, they’re having an effect. Despite Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ getting overturned in the courts, visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen – declined by 55% compared with a year prior.

As reported widely yesterday, at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, were killed in airstrikes by the US-led coalition on Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news came out 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 is no surprise that the shock troops of the far-right are killing 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 huge 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 having to drop the label of ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-racist’ from his legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language of 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 this racism, whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, a 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, we push for reforms that protect our communities, and we challenge the US war machine no matter what justifications it cloaks itself in.

But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed from intervening to help prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man in Kansas who was shot by Puriton – he was trying to intervene. 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 I could easily walk away from. 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 attack and began insisting 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, with the man choosing to leave. If this is happening 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.

And these recent killings 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, even as we know that many of us, like those men in Portland, will continue to do so as a basic requirement of our morality?

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.

being watched

I woke up on the cold concrete floor of the coffee shop. It was May 2, 2014. A wave of weakness had overtaken me as I moved through the line of customers moments earlier. When I reached the register, my vision narrowed to a pinhole, then faded to black.  Now, looking up from the floor, I saw an old man – the cashier who was handing me my change when I fainted. His eyes were on me, his hand doing the sign of the cross over my body.

As I propped myself up on my elbows, lifting my head off the floor, he told me not to move. It was only in retrospect, weeks later, that I realized he’d been doing a stroke test, hoping my eyes would follow his finger as it moved before my face. I wonder if he told the paramedics I’d had a stroke.

Everyone else in the cafe was watching me, and watching him watching me. It was the closest I’d been to being on stage since my years as a gymnast. Back then, as a kid, the force of eyes on my body was grounding. Balance beam was my best event, and it was in arenas where the crowd was on all sides that I excelled. I’d imagine their eyes gluing me to the four inch wide surface, the force of so many gazes powerful enough to defy any of my wobbles or slipups.

After I recovered enough from my fall in the coffee shop to leave the house by myself – one, maybe two months later – I tried to walk to a nearby park. It was summer in Boston. As I walked, dressed in black jeans and a tank top, my usual modest outfit despite the relentless heat, I felt the eyes of each man I passed flicker over my body, resting on my eyes, my lips, my collarbone, my chest. I’d forgotten what it was like to exist in public. Fifteen minutes into the walk, I could no longer breathe. I changed my route, heading instead to the nearest store that sold sunglasses. Maybe that would stop me from feeling the pressure of these men’s eyes on me, allow me at least the appearance of refusing eye contact.

I wore the sunglasses every time I stepped outside after that, only retiring them when winter came.

Monkeys at the zoo get stressed out by the presence of visitors. Until recently we didn’t know why, but experts from the University of Melbourne found that it’s the presence of eyes on them that is the source of anxiety. Researchers placed five monkeys in an enclosure with a one-way screen that prevented them from seeing visitors, while the other half remained in their regular unmodified enclosure. The screened-off monkeys were 68% less likely to display aggression. Concentrations of chemicals linked to stress were a third lower in this group than among the monkeys that could see people watching them.

Summarizing the theory behind a panopticon, a design principle created by Jeremy Bentham as a cost-effective way to structure prisons that involves placing all cells in sight of a central guard tower, Michel Foucault writes “”He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

In the panopticon, the prisoner becomes the guard, so much so that the actual presence or absence of guards becomes irrelevant, so long as the belief in the guard is instilled in the captive.

When he sent me the email about why he was killing himself, Kevin said he saw himself as he existed in my eyes, or at least, how he imagined I saw him: bloodstained from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t live as a monster,” he wrote. If he’d given me the chance, I’d have told him I didn’t see him that way. But maybe it was enough that he’d started looking that way to himself.

That was New Year’s morning, 2014. He hit the send button at 2am, four months, one day, and ten hours before I fainted.

These days, I don’t wear my glasses when I’m out in public. I cannot see much beyond three or four feet in front of me. I can see the world, but it’s out of focus. I can’t make out faces, recognize friends. Most importantly, I can’t tell where anyone is looking. If men’s eyes consume me, I’d rather not know.

I am writing this essay in O’Hare, my laptop balanced awkwardly on my knees. After starting to write, I run out of complimentary wifi, so I give up and turn back to the book I have with me. It’s Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. In an essay on life in the Midwest, Biss writes, “Another friend of mine, a black woman, once described to me her experience of walking through a Wal-Mart in rural Iowa, where she was stared at until she could not bear the attention anymore. Her husband suggested that she take off her glasses so that she could not see the stares, and that, she said, had helped.”

Tonight, from the plane, the city lights below look like tinsel for a Christmas tree, strands of yellow-orange and white winking at me. Without my glasses, I can’t see anything but the tinsel.