Why The Left Opposes Police Unions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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.

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


Guatemalan Uprising: an End to Corruption and Fear

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. Once we broke through to direct political conversation, he spoke to me of his ambivalence about having escaped the country rather than taken up arms during the war. The guerrilla struggle, while ultimately unsuccessful in the face of a US-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 classified as genocide.

I recently watched the follow-up film, “Granito de Arana,” made by the same director. It’s on how she captured 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  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 Guatemalans’ thinking about he country is 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 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 was in effect a genocide for the predominately indigenous countryside population.

The first of these was a tierra arasada, or scorched earth, policy. As in US counter-insurgency campaigns (and perhaps not coincidentally since the US 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. Without debating why right-wingers were quoting Mao, it’s a policy 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 full decimation of these communities. 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 above photo of my friend’s drawing , the judges of these courts hid their faces with bandannas (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 guerrillas’ radio station that broadcast 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 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 percent of these massacres and violations were commuted by state forces, 3 percent by guerrillas, with the final 4 percent 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.