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.

Socialism or Barbarism, Basically

100 years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that society stood at a crossroads: socialism or barbarism. Today, it feels like we face a similar choice and not only in this country, with the Brexit vote surprising many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pundits pen polemics about how we may face a future of either “cosmopolitan finance capitalism” or “ethno-nationalist backlash.” This is a time of urgency, inflected with the recent murder of Jo Cox, attacks on Muslims and immigrants, and the murder of 49 people on Latin night at a gay club in Orlando.

In light of so much violence, it’s right for us to be unforgiving toward our political opponents. But as the Los Angeles Times’s Vincent Brevins put it, “Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very, wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for thirty years.” Such a nuanced view doesn’t do well in the media, which favors the inflammatory formulations that drive clicks, not to mention its bias toward the status quo. But when the stakes are so high, we can’t leave political analysis to “the experts” – after all, democracy is premised on the ability of us amateurs to understand the world too. That means acknowledging the relatedness of economic anxiety and the racist, xenophobic explanations people are turning to if we’re to offer a socialist alternative to either the continued administration of austerity by liberals or the reactionary nationalism of Trump or Farage.

Our crisis stems from a decrease in the standards of living for working class people that started with the onset of neoliberalism in the late-1970s. While we often associate redistribution with the left, neoliberalism is a redistributive project too. A pro-market ideology that minimizes the welfare state while expanding the state’s repressive forces, it redistributes wealth upward and from the public commons to private ownership. It reinforces globalization, which is less the borderless world implied by its name and more an order that eases restrictions on the movement of capital while reinforcing restrictions on the movement of people, as evidenced by the growth in border patrols and deportations in the US and EU.

These twin projects contribute to the immiseration of the many to the benefit of the few, creating a feeling of suffocation, the basis for today’s racist right-wing resurgence. “Economic suffering and xenophobia/racism are not mutually exclusive,” explains The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald. Rather, he adds, “the opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating.” Responsibility for this suffering rests squarely with the neoliberal elite, be it Barack Obama, David Cameron, or Hillary Clinton, who have chosen to administer these policies even as they insist on their status as lesser evils to the monsters they’ve created.

But this only goes so far in explaining the gains won by Trump or his British counterparts. The other side of the picture is the sustained attack on the left that began not-coincidentally with neoliberalism’s early champions: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both figures began their tenure at the helm of the state with  attacks on unions – air traffic controllers in the US and miners in Britain. Paired with the anti-Communism that permeates the United States, this created a contemporary situation where many working class white people see the cynical racist populism of Trump as the only alternative to the status quo. Which is not to say there aren’t Trump supporters primarily and irrevocably driven by racism – there are and I think their numbers are large. To them, we should never address our arguments, not when we have millions of Sanders supporters and liberals to win over. But unfortunately for the rest of their base, Trump, Brexit, or any other white supremacist fever dreams are false saviors. The left’s is the only vision that can address inequality in the long term.

Labour MP Diane Abbott touched on this in a response to Brexit published in The Guardian, and it’s worth quoting at length:

“If only the false promise that Britain’s malaise of disenfranchisement, voicelessness and an economic system that rewards the rich at the expense of the poor could be fixed by leaving the EU. The idea that migrants or politicians in Brussels are the problem with modern, unequal Britain was the canard at the core of the referendum debate.

Britain’s problems come from a place much closer to home. They come from successive government policies that have promoted the financialisation of our economies and public services, thereby valuing profit over people. They come from a Tory government slashing public services and widening inequality under the dubious banner of austerity. And they come from a prime minister who was passionate about nothing but his own political survival.

These problems are so systemic today that fixing them will take a radical change to the structure of both our economy and political class. Returning to the past will not resolve the very real and interconnected global issues of our time: vast and rising wealth inequality, climate change and a foreign policy trapped in a cycle of destruction.”

Whether the context is Britain or the United States, “returning to the past” cannot address the cause of distress. While one Trump supporter recently told me immigrants are “an existential threat” to society, the true culprit is domestic: capitalism.

As Kim Moody argues in a recent piece for Jacobin, trade is only responsible for 20% of the losses in manufacturing jobs in this country. And despite a real trend toward offshoring, 85-90% of US manufacturing occurs domestically, far above the global average of 72%. Instead, it is productivity gains achieved through the intensification of labor and application of new technologies that are to blame for a decrease in manufacturing jobs, none of which would be possible were there a strong labor movement fighting to ensure livable working conditions and wages.

Rebuilding the labor movement then becomes a priority. Combating the intensification of work and application of new technologies can be done with an eye toward reversing the amount of income captured by capital, which increased its portion of the pie from 18.8 percent in 1979 to 26.2 percent in 2010. In a society coming undone by inequality, it’s workers, not capitalists, that should get more of the societal income.

Alongside demands for more of the value we produce going back into our wallets, today’s labor movement should argue unequivocally for a strong welfare state, whether in the form of a universal basic income or universal health care and social security, as well as bring back the old demands of “40 hours pay for 30 hours work” and full employment. These latter demands offer a means to incorporate those locked out of employment opportunities, both the urban and rural poor, offering an alternative to under-the-table employment and desperation. These demands are particularly urgent as most jobs created since the Great Recession are low-wage service work, sectors not under immediate threat by globalization but made unlivable by the perilous working conditions and pitiful remuneration they offer. This agenda grapples with technological advances that currently serve to discipline the labor force by posing a threat to jobs across industries. In a truly democratic society, where the working class majority has a say in how we distribute wealth and income, technological advances can be beneficial to all, decreasing the hours we work in a week and increasing the time available for leisure, creativity, and family.

I’ve been in Pittsburgh all month. The city’s experiencing a tech boom led by Google and Uber. The latter’s a particular source of anxiety: the company’s testing self-driving cars here and it’s created a panicked murmur about how technology may render workers redundant, a sore spot for a city devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. It’s these concerns – of getting left out, of declining futures and an undemocratic elite benefiting from our misery – that made Bernie Sanders’s social democratic message resonate, a development that aids the left in having reacquainted millions of people with the existence of a left beyond liberalism. Having seen the numbers of people open to this alternative, we need to get moving. This is not an academic debate – these are the questions animating the day. Our success in advancing left-wing answers and implementing them in practice will determine which road we take: socialism, or barbarism.

Always On


By the time Carol Hanisch’s essay “The Personal is Political” appeared in the 1970 anthology Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, that slogan had become a feminist rallying cry. A response to the era’s view of politics as concerned with a narrowly defined set of issues differentiated from the private domestic world, it challenged this divide.

That was the context and in it, ‘the personal is political’ was revolutionary. It resituated women’s experiences – of domestic and sexual violence, of relegation to the home, etcetera – as political problems rather than personal failings. Consciousness-raising groups provided space for women to measure their experiences against those of others, with analytical rigor transforming these stories into a collective understanding of the issues facing women. This overlapped with street work – marches, demonstrations, politicking, and strikes. In short, praxis: the feminist movement, a power bloc forcing change in the country’s institutions and social relations. That era was far from perfect – its racial, class, and sexual biases are familiar territory – but it had a movement, one that came up with theories of change through collective political practice.

Conditions are different today. “The personal is political” is mainstream. Entire publications run on a hot take profit model where think pieces proliferate over the latest ‘problematic’ celebrity, the ethical qualms of cultural appropriation, and the morality of interracial dating (I wish I was kidding about that last one).

Which isn’t to say we erred – after all, who could have seen this coming? But the congruity of these politics and neoliberalism should alert us to the stakes. If we understand neoliberalism as a class project of upward redistribution, a withdrawal of the welfare state alongside an expansion of the state’s repressive functions, our turn to the personal starts to look like a means of coping with rather than reversing the damage.

Take the discourse around “self-care” as an example. It takes an existing reality – we can hardly make it through each day – and offers it back to us wrapped in a language that insists we celebrate the actions we need to undertake to survive. Responsibility for social reproduction falls on our shoulders once again. Whereas we once sought collective solutions to our personal problems, we now live the outcome of the neoliberal counter-revolution which, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, may have taken economics as the method, but its object was our souls. That self-care is more therapy than politics should then come as no surprise. Which is not to minimize the need for therapy! But so long as we conflate politics with what we do to get by, we’ll forever be keeping ourselves healthy enough to hold a shit underpaid job and calling that politics.

The stick has shifted too far in the opposite direction of where it was when feminists came up with “the personal is political.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the thinking behind the slogan has been forgotten in this undoubtedly improved world. Today we need an off switch, a limit beyond which we understand ourselves to be living as individuals. What if we recognise that, to paraphrase a refrain of Freddie DeBoer’s, the culture you prefer is not your politics, that while the personal is surely political, it is not politics? A politics that emphasizes winning collective gains over manipulating symbols and language as if material progress flows from better ideas rather than the reverse. If we can’t agree on this, we doom ourselves to a navel-gazing that walls us off from those not yet part of our movements.

In a recent post, I wrote about the people immersed in the political culture I’m describing. As I put it,

“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.”

I received a lot of feedback on this. People told me they knew exactly what I meant about the exhaustion. And I’m not surprised: I lived these politics too, where cultural preferences, relationships, language choice, and social circles were scrutinized for political imperfections, which then reflected back my worth or failings as a political actor. It was gutting.

But as I pulled away from this understanding of politics, I breathed easier. While identitarians, social justice activists, radicals, Woke Olympians, or whatever else you want to call them may not incorporate class analysis as often as socialists do – a relic of the what Carl Beijer calls “liberal identitarianism” – most of them are radicals. They can be won over and if some of us don’t engage them, we cede further ground to the Democrats, the neoliberals, the non-profits, to anyone but the left.

Old and New

After raising my brother and I in apartments, my parents bought a house in the early 2000s. It was in Pittsburgh and there was a toilet in the basement.

I never thought about that basement toilet much. Mostly it creeped me out, encased in a rotting and dusty wood stall. I’d scurry past it on my way to and from the washer and dryer, terrified of the monsters – or at least spiders – that hid in its shadowy crevices. Only later did I learn the Pittsburgh toilet’s a relic of the city’s steel town past. Steelworkers would come in through the basement door, use the toilet, and rinse off the ash and dirt from the mills in the washbin before going upstairs. To my memory, my parents never did anything with the toilet, neither getting rid of it or fixing it up to the point where we could plausibly have used it. Instead, it was simply there.

I’m back in Pittsburgh after a six year absence – only visiting, not to stay. My parents have moved to a different house and this one doesn’t have a toilet in the basement. Despite that, I keep running into Pittsburgh’s past. The steel industry is long gone, replaced by a high tech and robotics surge that makes the place feel like a boomtown, but homages to the past remain.

For example, Google moved into an abandoned Nabisco factory in a poor neighborhood on the east end of town. The developers received millions in tax breaks and a grant from the state environmental agency because the place was a brownfield, poisoning the poor as they and it existed, more or less abandoned by the state. The factory is unrecognizable now, transformed into hip clothing stores and startup incubators and security guards watching over the lot of it. But in the Google offices, the catalyst of so much change – developers have already renamed one neighborhood in an attempt to rid of its stigma as a poor and black area – sits a huge cookie dough mixer from the Nabisco factory, a bizarre remnant of the past.

Uber’s bringing the future to a brownfield site too. In Hazelwood, a neighborhood on the other side of town, they’re turning an old coke works into the grounds for testing self-driving cars. As for the people in the area? They continue as they were, ignored by the new economy poaching the land around them. Once a community of 30,000, Hazelwood’s population hovers at 5,000, a quarter of whom live in poverty. The neighborhood still lacks a grocery store – as do many in the city – but unless their local political mobilization wins out, it will likely be redeveloped to accommodate a private access road directly to the Uber site, one that will cut through other underserved neighborhoods as shuttles carry techies to and from the site.

And yet Uber plans to keep the empty industrial shell of the coke works, presumably to provide an aesthetic quirk, an oddity to point out to investors and execs visiting the state-of-the-art track for the cars within its walls.

These tech giants – and the countless industrial-themed bars and restaurants, the murals on the side of condos that depict steelworkers – appropriate a past that’s central to the city’s identity. The steel industry shaped the physical layout of the city, the streets, and the houses, all jammed together with ancient toilets lined up in their basements. But while it is shaped by it, the Pittsburgh of today is not that past. For most residents, the blue collars the city’s so proud of have ceded to the pink collars of low-wage service work, a unionized workforce to atomization, and the tech economy brings with it ideological baggage that threatens the democratic structures of the city itself.

This is nothing new. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, Andrew Mellon – their names are scattered through our lives in this city because they had the same anti-democratic noblesse oblige that characterizes today’s tech billionaires. This philanthropic model gave us wonderful museums and libraries and universities that bear their names but not without also giving us the massacres of the Homestead Strike and air pollution so severe it made life in the city hell for hundreds of thousands who lived and worked within it.

When the past is ubiquitously evoked in the present, it’s worth being skeptical about which past we’re talking about. While that past is being cleansed, aestheticized and defanged by the city’s new elites, its salience as a reference point provides a means for working class Pittsburghers – Yinzers, if you prefer – to criticize what the new economy fails to replicate: a living wage and benefits, for one. Identifying which past is being kept alive by tech entrepreneurs and their counterparts in real estate, restaurants, and hospitality is the start. Countering with the city’s working class history comes next.

That last part’s not my role, prodigal daughter that I am, but what I am looking at is how the present echoes the past; the old, the new. The noblesse oblige of the industries remaking the city – and San Francisco, and Boston, and a whole host of others – to their taste sounds a lot like the ideology of the industrialists who built this city the first time around. Surely there is a ‘new’ to the new economy but the more time I spend looking at it, the more familiar it seems.

On that, more later


The Guatemalan Uprising: An End to Corruption and Fear

Protest in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. August 2015.
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. August 2015.
Guatemala is in upheaval today. In the past few days, prosecutors for the country’s Public Ministry charged President Otto Pérez Molina with “being part of a criminal organization, with the purpose of defrauding the state.” He joins his once vice-president Roxana Baldetti in jail, with Baldetti and dozens more officials implicated in the corruption scheme known as La Línea, a conspiracy that funneled state money into private hands.

The story that cannot be lost in the proliferation of spectacular images, such as that of Molina listening to the charges against him this morning, is what led to the events of the past week: people organizing to oust a corrupt regime and rebuild a sense of collective agency in a country decimated by a civil war that raged for thirty years. The war left an estimated 200,000 dead or disappeared, the latter being the term used to refer to the people who vanished without a trace, never to be heard from again, and it is the impact of these horrors, too, that current organizers are struggling against.

Speaking with people in the country in the month leading up to Molina’s resignation, the constant reference point of conversation was the period at which the civil war reached a fever pitch: 1979-1983, with a year or two of variation depending on where in the country the speaker was living during that time. “The fear cannot be described,” one man told me about that era. We were on a bus, and as often happened, after striking up a conversation and navigating ‘safe’ subjects for the better part of an hour, I began picking up on his subtle references to political developments in the country, and the back and forth hinting at direct political conversation escalated into his weighing with me the ambivalence he continued to struggle with about having escaped the country rather than taken up arms during the war. The guerrilla struggle, while ultimately unsuccessful in the face of a U.S.-backed Guatemalan military utilizing a genocidal scorched earth policy, enjoyed broad-based support from the rural population of the country, a demographic that continues to constitute the majority of the country’s people.

While my friend on the bus left the capital to flee to the United States rather than to the mountains during the conflict, this was a fluke, an opportunity to which the overwhelming majority of the Guatemalan population lacked access. The fear born in this period, with friends and family disappeared without a trace, or buses regularly searched by Kaibiles, special military ‘death squads’ tasked by then-President Efrain Rios Montt with “exterminating” guerrilla support in the countryside and communists in the cities, continues to weigh heavily in contemporary Guatemala.

Many of the ex-guerrillas I spoke with felt that the current anti-corruption movement’s base among youth was an important strength. “They do not know what it was like, they can only have heard stories about the war,” said one ex-URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) fighter in Quetzaltenango, a Mayan-majority city in the southwest of the country. Fighters from this portion of the country were largely affiliated with the URNG, which after the violence formally ‘ended’ in 1996, became the broader umbrella for the united front of guerrilla groups during the peace accords negotiation process. Today, the URNG has transformed itself into a political party, albeit, a small one that in this coming election cycle has teamed up with WINAQ, a left indigenous party, to put forth a presidential candidate.

That those on the front lines of this summer’s protests didn’t live through the violence undertaken by the Guatemalan state in the name of anticommunism has likely facilitated their bold denunciations of those in power. I witnessed university students in Quetzaltenango dump dozens of stolen election campaign signs from the leading political parties in front of the entrance to the city’s municipal building, blockading anyone from entering or exiting the building, and finally setting off firecrackers on the pile and all around it, brazen political theater that once would have been more than enough reason for those students to be kidnapped by the state. However, these students punctuated their actions with laughter and singing, posing for photos, albeit with masks covering their faces, before jumping in a truck to leave the scene.

While the overwhelming demand of the current protests is an end to corruption, one that pressured the (corrupt in their own right) Guatemalan judicial institutions to charge Molina along with many of his colleagues, what remains to be seen is whether this demand broadens into a call for justice. Rather than centered on La Línea, this is a historically-informed justice that begins with the rural and indigenous populations who continue to suffer the consequences of (genocidal, in the case of the Ixil triangle) massacres as well as land dispossession in the interests of export-production, from coffee to more recent investments in African palm and hydro-power. While Cacif, an organization representing the interests of a number of big business sectors, has supported the anti-corruption protests in the past week or so, this broader demand would likely break this cross-class coalition, with Guatemala’s oligarchic handful of wealthy families forced to account for their role in the dispossession of the wider, deeply-impoverished, population.

As Allan Nairn explained on Democracy Now, this shift in the uprising’s demands is one that makes intuitive sense, as the history of Guatemala’s civil war and land reforms can’t be considered distinctly from the present: President Molina, under the alias ‘Commander Tito’ during the war, commanded operations that resulted in scorched earth massacres of the rural population. Caught on remarkable and horrifying film standing near civilian bodies during the conflict, Molina is a military man through-and-through, trained at the infamous United States School of the Americas along with a number of his ex-military colleagues in Congress today.

This push for justice against the wrongs of a corrupt regime in the 21st century, but also against the corruption of it’s 20th century roots as a military dictatorship, is no abstract concept. Nothing could be more concrete than the need for reparations for the victims of police and military torture and murder, the displacement of millions from their land during the conflict and again with the flood of new extractive industries that have been courted by the Molina regime. We can only wait to see whether such a demand can gain ground in what appears today to be a urban-centric uprising, which while including participation from rural and indigenous Guatemalans, reflects continued inequalities between life in the cities and countryside. The Guatemalan elections, scheduled for Sunday, September 6, may occasion the next development in this uprising’s trajectory, but whatever unfolds, this moment signifies what journalist Ryszard Kapuściński in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Iranian Revolution, poetically identified as a key point in the revolutionary process. Describing a police officer shouting at a protester to disperse in revolutionary Tehran, he writes:

“But this time everything turns out differently. 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’s now taking place in Guatemala. Whatever may come next, the effect of a fear dissipated on the future of a people cannot be underestimated, nor its outcome predicted in advance.

Guatemala and Rios Montt

Before leaving for Guatemala, I watched When the Mountains Tremble, a documentary made in Guatemala in 1982, at the height of the country’s civil war. It has incredible footage of guerrillas, the pueblos that supported them, and soldiers committing mass killings that have now been legally classed as genocide.

I recently watched the follow-up film, Granito de Arana, made by the same director on how she shot such rare footage and how that footage is aiding in prosecuting those responsible for killing 200,000 people during the war. The most critical figure in this is Efrain Rios Montt.

I highly recommend both films (at least the first of which is available online). Both share a focus on Montt, and since coming here, it’s become clear that the role Montt plays in many Guatemaltans’ thinking about he country is far greater than I’d understood. When he’s mentioned, rather than saying “may god bless his soul” as one might after uttering a saint or martyr’s name, the speaker often adds “may god strike him down as I speak.” While this is said with a laugh, it’s clearly no straightforward joke.

Montt commanded the military during the years of its worst massacres, continuing to hold political power on-and-off until 2012. During his time at the head of the state, he employed a number of policies that contributed to what at least in effect was a genocidal regime for the predominately indigenous countryside population.

The first of these was a tierra arasada, or scorched earth, policy. As in U.S. counter-insurgency campaigns (and perhaps not coincidentally since the U.S. and Montt’s regime worked hand-in-hand), tierra arasada was justified with reference to a Mao quote, that “as water is to the fish, the people are to the guerrillas.” According to Montt’s second-in-command, this implied the need to decimate the people, as without people, the guerrillas cannot survive. While entering into the debate over whether the invocation of this quote was cynical or reflected a genuine belief that only such a policy could defeat the guerrillas isn’t my purpose here, this policy is worth highlighting considering the ongoing genocide trial against Montt and his lower-level commanders.

The second policy was the creation of P.A.C., patrullas de auto defensa civil. These patrols were mandatory, and acted as a rural forced conscription, with the difference being that once members joined, they patrolled their own pueblos. Should they come upon guerrillas, they were to engage in combat. This despite the fact that oftentimes said guerrillas were of the town, the brothers and sisters of those in the P.A.C. While the guerrillas had modern weaponry, Montt relegated his oldest arms to the P.A.C., creating an asymmetry in the time needed to attack, with the guerrillas invariably holding the advantage. Whether genocide was intended or not, this situation posed no contradiction for Montt’s military, as they sought the decimation of these communities, and should guerrillas be forced to engage with P.A.C., the ensuing slaughter could only make the state’s narrative more convincing, as Montt continued to push the line that the guerrillas were massacring their own people in the countryside.*

The final policy, the obverse of these rural policies, were the feuros especiales. These were black-site special courts that processed and sentenced to death those who became (and remain) known as the disappeared. Totaling over 45,000 people, the disappeared were overwhelmingly urban activists: leftists, students, professors, and union members. As implied by the photo of my friend’s amateur drawing below, the judges of these courts hid their faces with bandanas (with the drawing’s unintended evocation of the KKK not far off the mark). While Montt later explained this practice as coming from the judges’ fear of retribution from guerrillas should they be identified, it’s widely speculated that it was necessitated by the fact that these were not judges at all, but rather, military officers.

Whether what Montt’s military forces did was genocide against the indigenous or indiscriminate slaughter of all rural residents (a political and legal, rather than moral, distinction) remains subject to debate. However, it’s clear when talking with people here that the result, wiping out entire indigenous regions, speaks for itself. I came here thinking the focus on Montt’s conviction in a criminal court was somewhat misguided, but realized that not only is the conviction symbolically important, but it also paves the way to try other past military leaders, many of whom remain in power, including the current President, Otto Perez Molina.

Many Guatemalans have been trying to have Montt found culpable for war crimes for nearly two decades (and while he was recently found guilty, the ruling was thrown out soon after). Despite these efforts, he remains free. It’s unreal to hear Mayan people who lived through these massacres, K’iche’ and Mam alike, speak about Montt today. When discussing Montt with a friend a few days ago, I mentioned that the only way I could convey the role Montt plays here is by imagining how Hitler would we be spoken of in Germany had he remained alive. When discussing Montt with someone today, they made this reference themselves by simply calling Montt ‘Hitler’ throughout our entire conversation.

I’ll end with an anecdote, told to me by a K’iche’ ex-guerrilla whose main work during the war was with la Voz Popular, the guerilla’s radio station that broadcasted military and political developments to the Guatemalan public. He spent nine years with the unenviable job of biking supplies at night across the volcanic range in which Voz Popular’s clandestine outposts were scattered. After the war, he continued to work on alternative communications structures, and in 2000, presented a proposal on the subject to Congress. With 2,000 supporters there to witness his organization’s presentation, he stepped up to the podium to help give the proposal to the then-President of Congress, none other than Rios Montt.

The look in his eyes when he spoke of standing two meters from Montt is, for want of a better word, unforgettable. “I’d thought of killing him for decades,” he said, “that dream had gotten me to sleep in the mountains each night.” In that moment, however, “I didn’t have my pistol, as I couldn’t have gotten it into the building.”

Having relayed this, he laughed the story off with another “may god strike him down as I speak,” and moved on to discuss his current work. As I talk with more people and Montt’s ongoing stalled trial continues to come up, it’s clear that in contexts like that of a post-war Guatemala, a focus on the individual can broach the social silence of a country and open the floodgates to broader structural discussions.

*An international commission investigating the massacres after the war found that 93% of these massacres and violations were commuted by state forces, 3% by guerrillas, with the final 4% unable to be determined.


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.