Case Study of 1

A red ticket-dispenser in the psychiatric department instructs me to take a number and wait until it’s called. So, I do.

I am trying one last time to get mental health treatment. At least, that’s what I said two months ago to trick myself into following through on it. Suppressing doubts about whether this latest attempt would work, I looked up my health insurance’s list of local mental health care providers. The first few weren’t taking new patients. The next two said they didn’t take my insurance, even when I said I was sure they did. The next one was a hospital. The receptionist said there was no room for new patients. I told her that I could wait if needed and no, I am not suicidal, but I need help. She found me an appointment in two months’ time.

So two months later, I’m here. Another hour and I’m called to the registration desk. The receptionist says she isn’t sure if they take my insurance, and to go to the financial counseling department and then come back. Her coworker disagrees, so she just calls the counseling department instead, who confirm the hospital takes the insurance. The receptionist hands me a yellow paper square with my new number—“We call people by numbers here, not names,” she says—and instructs me to wait. The paper has a big “1” written on it. A good sign, I think, looking at the overflowing waiting room.

A nurse calls out “1” an hour later and I pee in a cup and return to waiting. Thirty minutes later, a therapist appears, asking for “1.” She seems nice, though she doesn’t look up from her computer when she asks if I’ve ever tried to kill myself. But when I tell her I how I’m doing, she tells me she is so sorry and I decide that she sounds like she means it. We schedule a follow-up and she walks me to the psychiatrist’s office.

I enter and begin repeating the answers I’ve just given the therapist to the standard mental health questions. No, I am not suicidal. I live with roommates. I do not have children. If I’m out with friends, I can definitely down a few drinks, but that happens maybe once a week. I work full-time. I have tried Wellbutrin and Effexor, but they did not work. I am desperate for something to work and willing to do what is needed to get better. I am trying to be responsible.

***

I blame the medical bills.

They pile up in a corner of my room, collecting cobwebs under the bed. Every few months, I gather them up, opening a few. There are doubles, triples, of the same bill, differing only in their dates. Others are solo, lone socks in the pile. I consider using them all as wallpaper.

After I was hospitalized with a particularly nasty skull fracture a few years ago, something snapped; suddenly, I could barely call a doctor. It might have something to do with the way the hospital treated me—a nurse said that they had all believed I was uninsured and had given me “different” treatment because of it—but I think it’s the bills’ fault. They started showing up mere weeks after I was discharged. They never slowed down, no matter how often I wrangled with my insurance company on day-long phone calls. I was broke, and the bills broke me.

So after the first hospitalization, hospitalization became my health care strategy. If you have a severe injury, the hospital will find you a primary care physician and force you to book an appointment. For the skull fracture, they did likewise for a psychiatrist, among other specialists to deal with the aftereffects of the injury.

It seemed great, but my enthusiasm waned when I left the hospital. Each doctor is a co-pay, and that’s if you’re insured. Without insurance, my first hospitalization would’ve cost $39,000 (I made $10 an hour at the time). With it, I was still on the hook for a few thousand dollars. Dizzying diagrams of future appointments and work schedules began to dot my notebooks alongside unworkable budgets. But I was unwell, so I lost track. Within months, I was missing appointments. Soon enough, I couldn’t remember the doctors’ names.

Eventually, I was without care again until being hospitalized in a new city, New York, where I’d just moved. I had no doctors here, and my mental health was declining precipitously. I chose to interpret this turn of events as a gift.

After a false start—I went to a hospital in my neighborhood, Bushwick, only to be discharged because the doctors “couldn’t figure out what was wrong”—I found a hospital rich people go to that accepted my insurance. My wish had been granted: I’d lock down future doctors. Thank god for my prematurely decomposing body.

It didn’t work out. The doctors were understandably focused on my physical ailments. When I mentioned other health problems, they told me to wait until I recovered to worry about the rest of it.

The night I was discharged, I was groggy, floating on morphine. I had complications that required the procurement of an ambulance to drive me home. Follow-ups were scheduled hastily as I was rushed out the door. Someone from the hospital called with the PCP’s information while I was horizontal, strapped to a stretcher. I scribbled the information on the back of my discharge papers. When I got home, I realized the pen had been out of ink.

Despite this, I found the doctor. I couldn’t remember any details about the appointment, but I returned to the upper-east-side hospital and spent a day asking administrative employees for help. Finally, a saintly woman in a tucked-away office, packed with precarious piles of papers, the Office of Historical Memories or something, tracked down the information.

As it turned out, the PCP was actually a clinic; I was seen by different doctors-in-training every time. It was rushed, and no one seemed to have notes. I asked for a psychiatry referral. They told me they couldn’t do that, and to find a psychiatrist myself. After further prodding, they offered the numbers of two psychiatrists. I again scribbled this information on the back of medical forms and left.

They remain in my room, a monument to the vast reserves of the human spirit—I, of course, never got an appointment. The first time around, it took me a year, maybe two, to disappear from the health care system post-hospitalization. This time, it took weeks.

I spent a year like this. I’m fortunate to have never had the type of depression that brings suicidal thoughts and extreme highs and lows; mine is the flat-line variety. Someone who takes days to respond to a text message does not have the ambition required to die—no thanks, sounds like work. But the depression got worse than I’d believed it could. And the bills kept arriving! The calls from unknown numbers multiplied. Once a month or so I answered one. Every time, it was a debt collector.

***

So I am here, making a good-faith shot of it, answering the psychiatrist’s questions.

We get through all of them. After a brief silence, she says she cannot prescribe me medication. When I ask why, she informs me that I am an alcoholic, and antidepressants do not work with alcohol. I say I am aware of the “don’t drink on meds” rule, and if it’s really the case that the medication will not work if I drink, then so be it, I’ll drink lemonade at parties. “I am desperate, and willing to do what it takes to get better,” I restate.

“You could not quit drinking if you tried, and you will not try,” she says. She has known me for twenty minutes at most. “I will likely recommend you get addiction treatment, which entails three appointments a week, and then you can get on an antidepressant.”

Perplexed, I tell her I do not need addiction treatment, that I sometimes go weeks without a drink, and besides, I work full-time and what with my whole exhausted-depressive thing, there is no way I could follow through on three appointments a week. I think about a family member who was court-ordered to attend AA meetings three times a week after an arrest, and how little the judge cared that he might lose his job for taking that much time off. This is criminal, I think.

She says that she will add to her notes that I am in denial about addiction, and if I’d like to get my blood work done so she can see the results and formally decide what treatment to recommend, I can do so. In the meantime, can I quantify my drinking for her notes on my alcoholism, she asks.

“Would you say you take like, ten shots?” She actually says this. I cannot speak, so I laugh. She is withholding medication I need as a perverse moral means-testing, because I mentioned I get drinks with friends once a week. The only possible outcome, should I refuse to go along with it, is that I will go untreated, or will lie about my drinking habits to a future psychiatrist if I ever get to see one. She must know this.

“It took me so long to get this appointment,” I say.

She stands and gestures to the door.

I get the blood work done. As I leave, I stare at the room of waiting patients, some of whom were here when I arrived six hours ago. This is a hospital for poor people. I can’t stop wondering how many of them this psychiatrist will also withhold medications from unless they, too, agree to whatever preconditions she chooses. How many other doctors like her are there? The rich and the poor use drugs at the same rate, but there is no doubt in my mind this woman sees everyone here as an addict or a criminal and is determined to punish us for it. There are no consequences for her, but some of us will die.

I think about last year, at the Bushwick hospital. I doubt there were any millionaires in that packed emergency room. They’d discharged me late at night, on a cocktail of painkillers but still pulsing with pain, to walk home.

These hospitals are located in the heart of the city’s gentrification but apparently those who can, avoid them. I’d never step foot inside one of those places, friends say when I describe my day. Everyone knows not to go to those hospitals. But I didn’t, and neither did the hundreds of other people who were in the psychiatric department this morning. “Why are these places packed if everyone knows this?” I think, to distract from other thoughts, about how, exactly, I will wait out the months it will take to get a new appointment, with a new psychiatrist, in Manhattan.

Anyone reading this likely knows health care is a gruesome, deadly separate-but-equal system in the United States. Anyone who can avoid these hollowed-out institutions on which so many working-class people rely is acting quite reasonably in doing so. They are carceral and dangerous—sometimes filled with literal toxins, as if this country needed more symbolism. They kill us, even if we kill ourselves. They tell us we are criminals, and we agree—a plea deal is the best anyone can get. They say we are addicts, and we wonder whether we must be addicts if we are to survive. None of this is news, it’s just another data point. These are hospitals in the richest city in the country, but the funneling of resources away from them reproduces segregation—it’s how they got this way in the first place. And it is worse elsewhere.

I don’t have any proscriptions (and yes, as you’re now aware, I don’t have any prescriptions either) beyond what many people are already doing: pushing for universal health care so at least we can get rid of the damn financial counseling department and all the co-pays (today’s experiment left me $45 poorer), funding long-term mental health care, and otherwise creating a world with less alienation, less poverty, shorter workweeks.

I’m just mad, and the stakes are so high. US life expectancy has dropped for the third straight year, in part because more people are killing themselves. If I were the suicidal type, this might be the end of my rope. (I cannot insist enough that I am not, and while the death of the author etc., please do not worry, I’m fine.) I just wish it, all of it, would be classified correctly, as murder: the mistreatment, the abuse, the insurance mix-ups, the lack of access in the first place, the disdain, the bills, what that psychiatrist did today. It’s homicide, on a mass scale: take a number, wait until it’s called.

Extremely Abbreviated Description of One Female’s Pain

1

Last year, a doctor’s aide took my vitals. I sat at ease in a chair, until she told me matter-of-factly that my heart was beating fast enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

Had I exerted myself before going to the doctor, she wanted to know. I hadn’t. The hospital where this doctor was located was out of the way, inaccessible by public transit, so I’d taken an uber to the front door. I’d even taken the elevator to the neurology clinic, shamefully choosing not to walk the two flights of stairs from the main entrance.

“No,” I responded.

“You’re lucky we caught this. I’ll have the doctor talk to you right away.”

2

The only reason anyone caught my heart abnormality was because of my headaches. They’re migraines, technically. I’ve always gotten them, at least since I was a little kid. I’d long ago given up on doing anything about them. But after I had one so bad that I fainted and wound up in the hospital with a skull fracture, I was forced to go through the motions of seeking the cause of the pain. I soon gave up on finding the cause – rather, my doctors soon gave up. So I sought medications that might at least relieve the pain. That’s why I was at a neurology clinic getting my vitals checked.

It feels tired to write about being a woman with headaches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is tiring to be a woman with headaches. I am tired of it.

3

I write too often about fracturing my skull. I reference it compulsively. Only when reading Leslie Jamison’s essay on female pain did I admit to myself why. Jamison quotes from a memoir by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had childhood cancer and whose face was disfigured by it, cause for the title of Grealy’s book: Autobiography of a Face. In it, Grealy writes, “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.”

“Grealy had been craving the identity-locus of damage even before it happened to her; and was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived,” writes Jamison.

For the first few days in the hospital after fracturing my skull, I was torn between fear of dying and self-pity. These are related feelings: self-pity follows from awareness that one is too young to experience fear of dying, and this acknowledgement often strengthens that fear, goading a person to think of all that she will miss should she die.

For me, this manifested as yelling deliriously at a nurse. “You don’t understand, I can’t have a head injury!” I screamed, trying to keep her in my field of vision despite being strapped into a too large neckbrace, which forced me to look straight up at the white ceiling if I wanted to minimize the cutting pain the brace caused as it sliced into my too small, too thin collarbone.

“I finally have a job where I need my brain” I yelled, no longer able to see her.

When the nurse reappeared in my line of vision, I told her to let me check myself out of the emergency room. If I left, I reasoned, the injury would cease to exist. If I was someone not in a hospital, I would no longer be someone who needed to be in a hospital.

I lost consciousness before I could hear her response. Maybe she didn’t respond at all.

I soon acclimated to my new existence as someone confined to a hospital bed, someone who understood how to use a bedpan and who no longer cringed at the needle stuck into her arm every four hours by a blurry amalgam of nurses, made indistinguishable in the darkness of late sterile nights when she, or he, woke me from sleep to prick me for another blood sample. A new feeling came over me, not unconnected to fear or dying or self-pity, but distinct: I felt grateful. Something very bad had happened to me, something no one could deny was terrible. I had a traumatic brain injury. I might not recover. The doctors told me I had a brain hemorrhage. They told me that my spinal fluid could flood the space between my spinal cord and my skull, and that this could kill me.

I did not cease to fear for my life, or wish I hadn’t gotten hurt. But given that I had, I felt precisely what Grealy felt. I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.

4

I know better than that. I know I should be what Jamison calls a “post-wounded” woman. “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood,” she writes, and it’s true.  I fear my parents will read this essay and misunderstand me. That they’ll be hurt, or horrified, because they haven’t read Jamison’s essay, or think my excitement about being an authentically unwell, tragic woman compares in magnitude to my resentment and self-pity about my health. It doesn’t.

And yet…

And yet, I have a new wound; one I could be accused of choosing to prolong for the sake of pity. Ever since fracturing my skull, I’ve become paralyzed at the thought of making an appointment with a new doctor, or keeping up with the old.

I managed it for a year or two. I saw the neurologist, who gave me three different sets of pills for my headaches. I saw the ENT specialist, who explained to me that while I might never get my sense of smell back – a loss that came from a piece of my skull slicing through the nerve endings that translate odor into scent – I might. He wouldn’t say anything more definitive, surely fearing litigation. I saw a therapist, who saw a young woman so wounded as to be unfixable, so she gave me some pills, and I stopped seeing her.  I saw a specialist who was supposed to tell me why I felt dehydrated all the time, which, combined with the migraine, had caused me to faint in the first place. He cut open my lip and sewed it together again, testing for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that was the only explanation he could think of for my dehydration. I can still feel the stitches through my face. When he told me I’d tested negative, I saw someone else, who gave me pills to take three times a day, pills meant to stimulate saliva so my teeth wouldn’t decay, the enamel eroding and rotting the bone at an accelerated rate. I saw a dentist, who saw a thin girl with no enamel left on her teeth. “Are you bulimic,” she asked, adding that repeated exposure to stomach acid erodes one’s teeth. Even when I explained my condition, she seemed to still see a bulimic. I saw my new primary care physician, who helped me coordinate all these doctors, until she didn’t.

So now, I see no one. For the most part, this is okay. But when it comes to the heart abnormality the neurologist found, I never saw a cardiologist. It was over a year ago. I can’t seem to make myself schedule an appointment. When an ex saw me continue putting off the call that could have gotten me an appointment, he first tried to help. Then he gave up. We broke up, with him telling me to “see the doctors already, I don’t understand what is so hard about that.” I told him I would.

When I told the guy I see – “I wouldn’t call us ‘dating,'” he once told me, so I don’t – that it’s been over a year since a nurse discovered my heart abnormality, he told me I should see the doctor. I didn’t respond.

Jamison would probably add me to her cases of women dwelling in woundedness. She would be right. But I’d add – and so would she – that it’s more complicated than that.


Note: I’ll incorporate this essay into a longer piece elsewhere, but I wanted to share it as is in the meantime.

 

The Tragedy of the Political

I’m writing this the day after two men had their throats slit for refusing to watch a white supremacist berate two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. These men – we now know them as Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53 – intervened. The man who killed them, identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, was yelling slurs at the women. Details are scant, but we know that Christian slit the throats of Namkai-Meche and Best, killing them and stabbing a third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, who is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

It feels insensitive to write about this the day after their deaths. All across this country, people are grieving. Tens of thousands of people are telling Namkai-Meche’s mother that her son was a hero, that she is a hero for raising a man who intervened on behalf of strangers. I don’t mean to claim I have a clever take that you must listen to; I’m grieving too.

To quote an essay written after the 2015 attacks that left over 100 dead in Paris, “If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write think pieces after Paris.” Surely the same can be said after Portland. But if so many acts of violence these days are political, Namkai-Meche and Best’s deaths feel over-determined, inflection points in a time of upheaval where our days are over-saturated, each news cycle overflowing, delivered breathlessly, as if we now exist in a present that is somehow both too fast, impossible to keep up with, even as each day stretches onward like a horizon, full of too many hours, as if time itself is at fault, offering up irresistible opportunities for horror to the world, whose villains can’t help but drop tragedies into our day.

Donald Trump is the president. His election has intensified a lot of problems but after Portland, none feels more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration empowers the far right, vigilantes like Christian, a denizen of those idiotic free-speech rallies who would of course never murder someone, until he did.

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

Then there’s Adam Puriton, 51, a white man accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas on February 24 of this year. At least one bystander claims Puriton shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the victims, who were Indian. Puriton is also accused of wounding Ian Grillot, 24, who was shot while trying to intervene.

These are all racist attacks. Dave Zirin was right to call Collins’s death a lynching. These are all hate crimes. The men who are killing our friends and neighbors are empowered by the election of someone who imbibes fringe far-right beliefs about people of color, then spits them out as policy.

These policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, but they’re having an effect. Despite courts overturning Trump’s “Muslim ban,” visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen – declined by 55 percent compared with a year prior.

As was widely reported yesterday, airstrikes from the US-led coalition killed at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, in Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news broke the same day Christian murdered the two men who dared stop him from shouting anti-immigrant slurs on a Portland train. When Islamophobia is state policy and racism is preached from the Oval Office, it’s no surprise the far-right’s shock troops kill people in cold blood. When the leader of the United States has your back, what is there to lose?

Which is not to let the administrations before Trump off the hook: George W. Bush instituted the PATRIOT Act, putting massive resources into the surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities, not to mention the atrocities perpetrated abroad. Obama perfected drone warfare, normalizing the practice of killing civilians without it tarring his “progressive” or “anti-racist” legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language preferred by our political elites. He admits to what he’s doing and doesn’t apologize for it, emboldening his grassroots following to act on the ideas driving his administration.

For those of us who oppose racism whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, the question arises: what can we do? The answer seems more straightforward, if also more challenging, when it comes to the racism of the state: we oppose Trump’s policies, push for reforms that protect our communities, and challenge the American war machine no matter how it tries to explain away its actions.

But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed while intervening to prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man Puriton shot in Kansas – he was intervening. Are we to put our lives at risk to stand up to bigotry?

I wish I had an answer to that. At one level, the mode of action remains the same: you have to intervene if it feels like the right thing to do, even knowing that this could cause violence to escalate back onto you. I did this just two days ago: a woman was preaching Islamophobia at a diner, and I weighed the costs and benefits to inserting myself into a situation from which I could easily walk away. I intervened. The goal wasn’t to convince a bigot to give up her bigotry, but to make her think twice about spouting it publicly, and to show bystanders that they have comrades who won’t abide by racism. And I’d done it the night before, at a bar in Brooklyn, when a man brought up the Manchester bombing and insisted it was reason to tighten our immigration policies. Fortunately, the bartender was on my side, and told the man he could either shut up or leave, and the man choosing to leave. If this happens that often in New York, bastion of liberalism that it is, I can only imagine those in the country’s heartland are now forced to make these calculations on an increasingly frequent basis.

These recent murders may change that calculus for many of us. That’s natural. The more pressing consideration then moves to the collective level: how do we challenge the far-right as a movement, without restricting our challenges to the occasional rally or march?

That’s a question being discussed now in organizations across the country. How do we prevent racist violence without asking people to risk their safety? How do we broaden the consensus that declares the far right unacceptable, that prevents them from berating our friends and families in a way that isn’t voluntaristic or premised on a willingness to confront the right individually?

It’s a more pressing question than ever, and far be it for me to answer it on behalf of organizations or social movements. But ours is undeniably a present soaked in blood, steeped in intimidation, heavy and deluged, screaming with urgency.

imagination is in short supply these days

Imagination is in short supply these days.

Reality may be more wide open to possibilities we never imagined – a bumbling reality television star is President! – but it feels more constrained than ever.

Which isn’t to say I’m calling for the left to create a blueprint of what the vision we’re fighting for will look like. Marx hardly ever went much further than the following:

“In communist society, where no­body has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accom­plished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general pro­duction and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

That’s about as far as I dare to dream too, and it’s not a bad foundation.

But I’ve been reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, and it’s brought into focus how threadbare our current visions are by contrast. Kelley recounts the dreams of black radicals throughout history, detailing their visions even while acknowledging their flaws. Marcus Garvey dreamed of an Africa that had never existed, but it pushed himself and his peers forward into improvements in the here and now. Askia Muhammed Toure spoke of black R&B artists as “poet philosophers,” their music a weapon in the struggle for black freedom. Aimé Césaire, too, spoke of “poetic knowledge,” which accesses truths otherwise obscured by the grinding oppression of our daily lives.

So maybe those of us without creative talents have always had trouble holding to the utopian visions that drive our daily efforts.  But these days, it feels as if more and more of us are allowing our view of the possible to become unduly narrow. Women’s liberation becomes individual empowerment. Radical debate becomes making fun of the columnist dunces of mainstream liberalism.

I fall victim to it too. As we come up against an increasingly powerful right-wing – one aided and abetted by the center, a Democratic Party that can only ever be structurally responsive to its donor class – the impulse to restrict our horizons is strong. We can barely access reproductive rights in the country’s middle, but we can embarrass the hell out of people online for being sexist. We can’t reverse the trend of ballooning police department budgets, but we can get Good Allies to donate to our pet projects. And so our goals narrow, allowing us to feel victorious without achieving anything.

And I don’t mean to single out the easiest targets among the left. I write mostly about labor, and there’s a dire scarcity of imagination there too. Unions face existential threats: federal right-to-work laws, for instance. But instead of changing their approach: moving to democratize their unions, aid in the sustainability of locals by transferring organizing skills from staffers to the rank-and-file and increasing their organizing budgets for new campaigns, most unions are doing the opposite. They’re slashing their budgets, firing young staffers, tailing Trump’s xenophobic and anti-environment rhetoric, or even worse, endorsing it entirely.

This is how a movement shrivels and dies. Not just the labor movement (although definitely the labor movement) but the left as a whole, all our movements that share an interest in improving the lot of the majority. We reduce socialism to ‘populism.’ We reduce liberation to equality. We trade-in redistribution for equity. Just as the Democrats fail to achieve their political aims by tacking to the right from the start, “negotiating” by ceding ground to their purported conservative opponents, the left undermines ourselves by lowering our horizons. If we allow ourselves to get sucked into what those at the top deem acceptable over what we know is necessary, be it when it comes to taking action on climate change, unions, or fighting racism, we resign ourselves to failure from the start.

More than anyone else, we know we can’t afford that. Carbon taxes aren’t enough to resuscitate our dying planet. Body cameras won’t prevent the police from killing our neighbors. The ACA isn’t adequate to the task of getting millions of the uninsured poor access to health care.

I don’t have answers, and this is not an argument against fighting for reforms. But what I do have is the experience of what it feels like to witness what you thought only the day before was impossible, and how important it is to help people experience that for themselves if we want to keep radical imagination alive.

It’s what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She writes,

“It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question “why Ferguson?” just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when “enough is enough.” The transformation of Mike Brown’s murder from a police killing certainly tipped the scales.”

When Ferguson police officers left Mike Brown’s body on the street for four hours, they pushed the city’s residents over the edge and into an uprising. While that uprising didn’t achieve all its aims, many of the people who participated in it were transformed. The streets became theirs, their friends became comrades, and their dreams of freedom broadened as they experienced what it is to demand change.

The journalist Ryszard Kapuściński describes this process as so powerful that it can set off a revolution. Describing a police officer shouting at a protester to disperse in revolutionary Tehran at the start of the Iranian Revolution, he writes:

“The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts.”

This is what happened in Ferguson, and in so many other cities across the country where we refused to follow orders from police forces that are fundamentally unjust. It’s what I felt during Occupy Wall Street, when ordinary people decided for ourselves what justice meant and in doing so, set ourselves on a path that permanently reoriented our lives toward achieving those aims.

It’s hard to access such visions without involvement in a movement or campaign. To paraphrase poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, it’s only when the clouds clear that we can know the color of the sky, and it’s only by achieving collective gains that we learn what power feels like. But we need not be in Kapuściński’s revolutionary moment to glimpse the possibilities we’re fighting for.

Take the following story of a union victory recounted by R.L. Stephens:

In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.

That feeling of winning against the boss, of wresting power from those you previously thought invulnerable? That’s how our vision for the future stays alive. Become too removed from day-to-day struggles and it’s easy to  retreat into a pessimism that takes reality as it exists and reifies it into the only possible reality that could exist, seeing racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality as inexorable, without an alternative.

It’s why I tell people to get involved in organizing, even in a minor way. It’s through the experience of power, not just by talking and writing about it, that we gain access to the knowledge Cesaire thought might be restricted to poets. It’s why radicals celebrated the mass Women’s March, the airport protests, the BLM rallies. Feeling power in a collective, experiencing the moment of refusal in the face of police orders, demanding a fair share in the face of the boss? That’s the basis for radical imagination.

It’s hard – impossible, even – to hold onto that from behind a computer screen. But we shouldn’t let our visions narrow just because events of the day feel so bleak. Odds have always been against us on the left: that doesn’t mean we should restrict our visions to the possible, rather than the necessary. Don’t forget that, no matter how many people try to tell you otherwise.

Storytelling

In a review for The Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost takes a recent anthology on college sexual assault as a jumping off point to touch upon some concerning weaknesses in “the conversation” about sexual assault. Frost’s piece addresses a few issues I want to emphasize.

First, focusing on campus sexual assault without mentioning, as Frost puts it, the existence of “an outside world that’s even less safe” than campus is a problem. It’s one that stems from the class bias that comes with a focus on college campuses, particularly elite university campuses. Life at these institutions is far from representative of the average college student’s experience, much less the average sexual assault survivor’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if we want to improve women’s conditions in society at large – and I believe we do – feminist movements on campus need to perpetually push back against this distorted focus, as the media, courts, police, etc will always privilege certain voices over others – this much we know.

I say ‘we’ because I’m part of these movements – on my campus as both a mentor to undergraduates and someone dealing with a university that’s inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault  (boy could I tell you some horror stories). While we have the most power to force change in our own institutions, we need a more effective strategy of leveraging the spotlight on campuses to agitate for more resources in society at large for addressing sexual assault. That means increasing the options available to those who have been raped or assaulted other than going to the police (who are a source of violence against women in a number of ways), arguing for universal health care, rolling back the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and fighting for affordable housing so people can more easily leave those abusing them.

Second, the packaging and delivery of survivors’ stories deserves criticism. I don’t mean criticism of survivors but of the publications profiting off their pain. Frost writes expertly on this and its connection to the economics of the online publishing industry, and her piece made me think of this one from last year. It’s about how some women can only get published by writing about their trauma. As a young woman toying around with writing myself, it’s clear I could get published writing about being sexually assaulted. But that would entail committing myself to a future where anyone can learn intimate details of my life with a quick Google search rather than when I’m ready to tell them. I admire anyone who writes such stories but I can’t help wanting to burn down the outlets that greedily churn that shit out for clicks without concern for the women offering up their trauma.

Which brings up a related point: that the debate around sexual assault is overwhelmingly about stories from survivors can be both a) an improvement from when we ignored this problem completely as a society and b) a serious issue when it comes to my dude’s eternal question: what is to be done? As Frost writes “while these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: ‘What am I supposed to do?'” She describes the anthology as leaving its reader directionless, and my years as a feminist in Boston – a college campus-centric city if there ever was one – feel similar. A lot of smart people write about why it is that a focus on the individual rises to the fore in the age of neoliberalism, which can accommodate – and sell! – individuals’ stories but not structural change, so I won’t try my hand at it. Instead, I’ll point out that this focus on the individual is pervasive when it comes to just about any feminist issue: abortion? Shout it! Sex work? Tell us whether you feel empowered!

I don’t want to disparage the people who support these strategies – fighting stigmas is good and I support them as people – but I am concerned with the strategic power of a focus on stories. I think it’s a shaky foundation for a movement. If all is predicated on what survivors want, what do we do when survivors disagree? It’s a bizarre parallel to the essentialized view of oppressed groups I wrote about the other day, where differential claims within “the black community” or “the trans community” become impossible to parse. I agree that it’s unproductive to judge the way any particular individual handles their assault; where I disagree is with the idea that this means we can’t discuss the efficacy of movements against sexual assault and the solutions they propose. It’s exactly this sort of critical analysis that Frost is doing in her review. People interpret their experiences differently, be these experiences as a woman, a person of color, a rape survivor, any combination of these identities, or anything else. What we as a movement must do is analyze the problems we’re facing and work out the best way forward.

A good friend of mine, one of the hardest working feminist organizers I know, has lately taken to saying that it’s wrong to say there is a feminist movement today, because there isn’t. I think she’s referring to the absence of collective feminist struggle – we have feminists, but not a feminist movement. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. I don’t know what we do about that – I’m thinking out loud here – but we need to take her provocation, and Frost’s, seriously.