Kingston: 2:30 PM in front of City Hall, 420 Broadway
Poughkeepsie: 6:00 PM in front of the Dutchess County Jail, 150 N Hamilton Street
We can make a difference. #ShutitDown for #MikeBrown
There’s been a lot of stuff out there that I’ve been wanting to post to this blog but haven’t gotten a chance to, so I thought a weekly roundup of noteworthy articles might be a good project to start. This list is not by any means exhaustive, so please drop us a comment with other interesting/important articles & petitions! Anti-Oppression Forum folks are working on publishing our first ever zine, Wildcat, so I’ll be sure to post all the original content from that when it’s out in early November. -Schuyler
Why is the World Ignoring the Revolutionary Kurds in Syria? by David Graeber, The Guardian
The Struggle for Kobane: An Example of Selective Solidarity by Leila al Shami, leilashrooms.wordpress.com
Call for Solidarity with Kobane by Gezi Platform NYC, Facebook.com/GeziPlatformNYC
Take Action: Tell Europe to Resettle More Syrian Refugees, The Syria Campaign
UN Officials ‘Shocked’ by Detroit’s Mass Water Shutoffs by Laura Gottesdiener, Al Jazeera America
Prominent Palestinian Activist Convicted of Obstructing Israeli Military by Renee Lewis, Al Jazeera America
Conspicuously absent from the debate about ISIS and U.S. intervention—both in the mainstream and in the leftosphere—are Syrian voices. ISIS and U.S. officialdom occupy center stage, leaving the perspectives of Syrian civil society activists and writers out of the equation. While hardly surprising, this omission is troubling.
In an attempt to remedy this imbalance, I asked several Syrians—longtime activists and intellectuals from a range of backgrounds, including Kurdish, Palestinian, and Assyrian Christian—what they think about the ISIS crisis and Western intervention. Here are their responses.
I am ambivalent about a Western attack against ISIS.
On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society.
On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.
Western powers could have avoided this had they helped the Syrian resistance in its battle against the fascist Assad regime. The right thing to do, ethically and politically, is to build a coalition against both ISIS and the Assad regime, and to help Syrians bring about significant changes in their country’s political environment.
Let me finally say that I am very skeptical of the plans and intentions of the American administration. ISIS is the terrible outcome of our monstrous regimes and the West’s role in the region for decades, as much as it is the result of grave illnesses within Islam. Three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body.
Symptoms and Causes
Any attempt to uproot or crush ISIS will be of no avail if it is undertaken without adequate analysis of the reasons for the group’s rise. The widespread feelings among Syrians of indignation and betrayal by the international community for the better part of the last four years will not be an easy matter to deal with, and will only be heightened if the international community does not commit to a serious initiative beyond sloganeering.
Fighting against ISIS without stopping the Assad regime’s massacres would have serious ramifications. Living under daily bombardment and shelling have led some Syrians to see ISIS, despite its barbarity, as a savior and avenger on their behalf against a murderous regime. These are sensitive matters. Neglecting them will only help ISIS spread further. Any attempt to deal with symptoms without serious considerations of the causes will lead to more dangerous complications. You can’t remove a malignant tumor without dealing with and disinfecting the whole context and resolving the problem. Otherwise you can end up with a bigger tumor, leading to complete loss of control over the situation.
Alternatives to Military Intervention
As a Syrian from a Christian background who has many years of experience with different Syrian opposition groups, I believe military intervention against ISIS will only lead to the creation of more extremism.
Before starting with a military solution, why not explore political, economic, and social solutions? Why did it take the West so long to embargo the oil produced by ISIS? Why did the West turn a blind eye to the flood of jihadists entering Syria through Turkey? Why no real pressure on Gulf countries for their official and unofficial massive support of different nefarious armed groups? Why did the “Friends of Syria” fail to provide Raqqa—the first liberated area in the country—with any support for the local community, the civil society organizations, and the emerging local council, despite all the calls to do so?
—Rasha Qass Yousef, member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and the Syrian Democratic Forum, a co-founder of the Haquna Movement, a civil resistance group in the city of Raqqa that campaigned against both the Assad regime and the armed groups who seized the city, including ISIS
Arm the Rebels and Smash ISIS
I strongly support U.S./NATO air strikes against ISIS, which has committed, and continues to commit, horrifying atrocities against civilians in Syria and Iraq, and I urge the international community to arm the Syrian rebels and provide them with the necessary means to take down ISIS, which has shown nothing but brutality against the Syrian people. This course of action will advance the cause of the Syrian revolution, which started as a struggle for freedom and dignity for the Syrian people.
But attacking ISIS without taking down the Assad regime’s air force would invite problems, as the regime can be expected to strike the Syrian rebels during their battles with ISIS, as it has done previously. The Assad regime is the source of extremism and violence in Syria. Any move against ISIS must be followed by effective steps toward a political transition beyond Assad.
—Kassem Eid, a.k.a. Qusai Zakarya, Syrian-Palestinian activist and chemical weapons attack survivor who launched a hunger strike in November to protest the starvation sieges of cities throughout Syria and demand that humanitarian agencies be allowed unfettered access into these besieged areas
Who Fueled ISIS’s Rise?
My support for the Syrian revolution is unconditional and for that reason I am opposed to the U.S. intervention. The United States and its regional allies have done everything to undermine the Syrian revolution. Most importantly they have done so by supporting the Syrian National Coalition against the grassroots movements. U.S. allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar initially backed Assad and later funded and equipped the most reactionary forces in the opposition. These same powers (plus Iraq) are now forming a coalition to fight ISIS. But these countries played a major role, directly and indirectly, in making ISIS a regional power. The United States and Saudi Arabia were instrumental in the creation and funding of global jihadism since the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led to the emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. Qatar is helping Jabhat al-Nusra while Turkey was, until recently, allowing ISIS to operate freely and cross its borders unchecked.
The U.S. intervention in Syria (and Iraq) will kill many innocent civilians. It will also fulfill ISIS’s wish to become the primary anti-American force in the region and thereby help the terrorist organization recruit more fighters. The beheading of the two U.S. citizens by ISIS was intended to generate the reaction it is now getting from the United States. Finally, Assad played a crucial role in strengthening ISIS and using it against revolutionary forces. The irony of all this is that the United States is asking the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS but not use American weapons against the Assad regime.
— Yasser Munif, professor of sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution
Remove One of the Syrian Revolution’s Key Obstacles
For me there is no simple answer. On the most elementary level, I am inclined to favor U.S./EU/NATO intervention against ISIS. Attacking ISIS would remove one of the Syrian revolution’s key obstacles, and this would leave the Assad regime more vulnerable. But I believe it is wishful thinking to expect any meaningful intervention that would give us such ideal outcomes. I think the future is gloomier than this. Despite all the political rhetoric on Syria from the White House, the U.S. administration is deadlocked, much as it has been since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Obama’s strategy of “seduce and abandon” has been used consistently over the last three years to deflect criticism about U.S. intervention in the Middle East. There has been no appetite to intervene in any real way to come to the aid of Syrian rebels. Either way, it is too little, too late.
Confronting ISIS, while crucial, is meaningless without at least two things: urgent and actual support for whatever remains of the secular and democratic forces within the Free Syrian Army, and sustained international political and economic pressure on the Assad regime. ISIS plays the role of a deus ex machina in the Assad regime’s version of reality, resolving the seemingly unsolvable problem that the regime has faced since Syrian protestors demanded its downfall: that of restoring its political legitimacy and international credentials. It ensures the regime’s survival and confirms the narrative that Assad’s forces are embroiled in a bitter fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Moreover, the present situation enables the regime to paint itself as an indispensible partner in the fight against terrorism, which is why commentators like The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss will continue to argue that “one key to solving the ISIS crisis is hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus, and his name is Bashar al-Assad.”
—Firas Massouh, doctoral student at the University of Melbourne in Australia and author of several essays on the Syrian uprising, including “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left”
Too Little, Too Late?
From a policy standpoint, Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels would have been more effective if implemented over two years ago, when Syrian opposition forces were less depleted. Syrian activists must welcome Obama’s plan with a sense of trepidation, because we were left in the lurch in August 2013 after the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. We waited for the retaliation against Assad that never came, despite assurances from the administration that it was imminent. Obama’s backtracking emboldened Assad, paving the way for the deaths of tens of thousands more Syrians. Now we are playing the waiting game again. When will the weapons arrive? And will they effectively change the balance of power on the ground? Our objective now has to include the downfall of both Assad and ISIS. Whether Obama’s plan will help achieve both remains to be seen.
—Rasha Othman, Syrian-American activist based in Washington, one of the key organizers of the International Solidarity Hunger Strike for Syria
Violence will only yield more violence. You can’t put out fire with gas. The U.S. attack on ISIS will only contribute to its proliferation. The international community and the United States have played a role in creating ISIS. They rely on hegemony rather than spearheading democracy, as they claim. There is a conspicuous lack of ethics in dealing with various global issues. For example, the Syrian issue got lost in the corridors of the UN for years, due to double standards in dealing with humanitarian crises. But suddenly the Iraqi case has taken center stage—it did so in a matter of days and without evening going through UN channels—due to geostrategic interests.
The solution lies in dealing with these matters on a consistent humanitarian and humanist basis and seeing people as fellow human beings and not as strange citizen of other lands, and to start seriously viewing our common and intertwined interests on the planet. Concretely this could be achieved by supporting civil resistance movements and other institutions and organizations that are helping spread education and awareness. Empowering local people and NGOs, particularly investing now in the millions of refugees, would represent an alternative path forward. There is no short cut to heaven.
— Khorshid Mohammad, Syrian-Kurdish co-founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and neonatologist at Alberta Health Services , University of Calgary, Canada
Special thanks to Afra Jalabi, a Syrian activist and writer in Montreal, for connecting me with several of the people I interviewed for this article. She is active in the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and serves on the Executive Committee of The Day After project, an international working group of Syrians representing a large spectrum of the country’s opposition engaged in an independent transition-planning dialogue. —Danny Postel
Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. His books include The Syria Dilemma and The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. He blogs for Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post and is a co-editor of PULSE.
Since 2011 Assad has progressively escalated his war against the Syrian people. His regime set the daily killing quotas, they escalated from small arms fire to tanks, cannon, rockets and airplanes. As the days turned into weeks and the months turned into years we were subjected to the same diatribe demanding that innocent unarmed people die for the principles of those watching them from a thousand miles away. Anybody who thought otherwise was dismissed as a warmonger. The chemical attacks came, and still the world did nothing. Then ISIS emerged, it almost overran the north of Syria before the Free Syrian Army along with Jabhat al Nusra pushed it out, and it went on to overrun most of Iraq. Then the world took notice but that was only because ISIS were about to commit the mother of all massacres against the Azidis of Iraq. Nobody complained about the airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Today those airstrikes began in Syria, and like earthworms after the rain the people who were silent before have now appeared and are able to speak.
Now they wring their hands in anguish. They pray for Syria. They wish there was another way. They worry about the innocents whose lives would be lost if the US led strikes against Syria materialised. Maybe to them a death by a US made bomb is a far worse fate than being killed by a Russian made one. So they shake their heads, “No, this won’t do at all. It is one thing to watch a country bleed white over the course of three years, but to have the United States cauterise the cancer that is ISIS immediately, well that’s just outrageous”.
There’s only one reason why the United States is bombing ISIS in northern Syria, and that’s because the Assad regime gunned down innocent protesters in 2011. In his first speech after the protests in Deraa, and when his regime could no longer pretend like nothing was happening, he ranted and raved about a terrorism that didn’t exist in Syria yet. He warned, no he threatened, that Syria will turn into another Afghanistan. He abandoned the north east of Syria, he struck oil deals with ISIS, he deliberately avoided bombing their headquarters whilst raining his wrath on the parts of Syria in control by the Free Syrian Army. His army obliterated parts of Homs, and eviscerated Aleppo, in a scorched earth policy that his soldiers spray-paint christened as “Assad or this country burns”. If there is anybody who holds the moral blame for all that has befallen Syrians since then, it is this bankrupt regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.
Syrians have had three years of this murder. Three years of his apologists using smoke and mirrors and every trick in the book to paralyse the international community and prevent it from doing anything about the barrel bombs and the chlorine bombs dropping on the heads of civilians. Again and again the spectre of Iraq is raised, not so that anybody can learn anything, but to frighten anyone from action, however much needed, to help Syrians. The anti-imperialist camp must, at any cost, oppose intervention in Syria and they are pathologically incapable of comprehending its necessity. Others will get on to the moral high horse and say that strikes on Syria will lead to innocent lives being lost. Of course, they don’t seem to mind much that the very next day those lives could be lost either by an overzealous ISIS fanatic enforcing his apocalyptic vision of a utopian society, or that death could come by Assad’s barrel bombs or rocket attacks or air strikes. No, for that they can only offer the potential victims a lot of moral anguish, hand wringing and anxiety as they are crushed between Assad and ISIS. Heaven forbid that anybody interfere, that anybody try to do something.
Last year many of those same people cheered with joy that strikes against the Assad regime were averted after he used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Since then the death toll in Syria has risen to over 200,000. But they have nothing to say about that. They’ve been too busy spending the last year basking in the warm glow of their own self righteousness. Since then Assad and his Shiite allies have managed to push back the Free Syrian Army (without ever challenging ISIS seriously) and ISIS has emerged from a fringe lunatic group to a lunatic messianic state controlling an area larger than the size of England. The non-interventionists are responsible for this turn of events, and they are responsible for the rise of ISIS. They offered no solutions, only obstacles. They don’t have a position you can criticise. They just insist that nobody have a position either, that Syrians die for the principles of somebody else; somebody who can rubber-stamp the revolution and say, “Yes, you’re a bonafide revolution and we approve of you”, and say to them, “We will sing your praises in post-graduate Middle East courses across the Western world for all time, and write books about your sacrifices”.
The fact is non-interventionists have no right to talk about who may or may not get hurt in Syria, to pretend to be concerned for the innocent, and they have no right to hold the moral high ground after the debacle we’ve seen in Syria for the last twelve months. This is a disaster, step aside and let someone do something about it.
Three days before Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, an advice column in The Village Voice went viral. A man who called himself “Son of a Right Winger” had written in with a problem: “I just can’t deal with my father anymore. He’s a 65-year-old super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total asshole intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.” The man explained that arguing didn’t get anywhere, but silence wasn’t a solution either: “When I try to spend time with him without talking politics or discussing any current events, there’s still an underlying tension that makes it really uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I love him no matter what, but how do I explain to him that his politics are turning him into a monster, destroying the environment, and pushing away the people who care about him?”
The musician and advice columnist Andrew W.K. wrote a simple, earnest reply that has been shared on Facebook 218,000 times. After admonishing the man to see his father as a human being, he asserted that the real problem was not human-made global warming but political disagreement itself: “The world isn’t being destroyed by Democrats or Republicans, red or blue, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist—the world is being destroyed by one side believing the other side is destroying the world.” He pointed out the pointlessness of politics: “even the most noble efforts to organize the world are essentially futile.” He warned that “unrest, disagreement, resentment, and anger” are a dangerous distraction. And he cautioned against political self-confidence: “Have the strength to doubt and question what you believe as easily as you’re so quick to doubt his beliefs. … Don’t feel the need to always pick a side.”
I hated Andrew W.K.’s response, even though (like the almost quarter of a million people who shared it) I found a lot to agree with in it. I have a 63-year-old father with whom I deeply disagree about LGBT issues and abortion, and I still love him, respect him, and learn from him. My friendships with people across the political spectrum are important to me. And it’s hard to argue with Andrew W.K. when he says that that no one is perfect; politics are complicated; we should see each other as persons, not monsters; and love should be able to bridge barriers.
More than anything, though, what struck me about Andrew W.K.’s response was how white it was.
I don’t know anything about Andrew W.K.’s background beyond what an Internet search can tell me, but as a white American I do know this: It is a privilege to experience political differences as differences of opinion rather than differences of power. It is a privilege to be able to view all political issues in indistinguishable shades of gray. And, as I’ve been realizing in the month since Michael Brown’s death: It is a privilege when loving your political enemy means loving your father, not loving the man who killed your son—or the man who killed someone who might have been your son, or who might have been you.
I teach Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” four times a year to my students at Yale. I’ve taught it seventeen times now, and at this point certain passages live in my memory. When I first read the Village Voice column on my Facebook feed I couldn’t help but hear Andrew W.K. as one of King’s interlocutors—the well-meaning white moderates who said “settle down!” and “wait.” I imagined what Andrew W.K. might have written to King, who was an avowed believer in creating crises and fostering tension, and who was in the midst of a bitter conflict that both argument and silence had failed to resolve. And I wondered how he would respond to the furious people in Ferguson as they lifted their voices and faced tear gas and tanks to protest the latest instance of an unarmed black person killed by a white cop who would likely never be brought to justice. Maybe, like the white clergy King was responding to in 1963, Andrew W.K. would see the real problem as the “unrest” of the controversial protestors themselves, not the systemic injustice they were protesting. Maybe he would advise protestors in Birmingham or Ferguson, “The world isn’t being destroyed by racism—the world is being destroyed by non-violent protestors believing that racism is destroying the world.” Or, “Even the most noble efforts to organize the world are essentially futile.” Or, “Don’t feel the need to always pick a side.”
Of course, “Son of a Right Winger” is not Martin Luther King, Jr. Neither is he a teenager who needs to navigate his own neighborhood in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. He is merely a private person with political opinions and family problems. The stakes are different for him. Yes, he feels that the fate of the planet is hanging in the balance, but in his everyday life political issues impinge on him because they affect his relationship with his dad, not because they threaten his personal safety or access to jobs or justice. But this discrepancy is exactly my point.
The enthusiastic response to Andrew W.K.’s article doubtless speaks to some likeable qualities in the citizens of Facebook: our recognition of our common humanity with people who disagree with us (or at least with people who disagree with us and are also related to us), and our desire for closer relationships with them. But it also speaks to the desire of so many of us privileged people to avoid all tension and conflict while still feeling like we are a force for good in the world. It’s a way of letting ourselves off the hook; of lulling ourselves into inaction by making neutrality into a positive good.
According to Andrew W.K., we don’t need to challenge our friends and family on the things that matter to the planet or to our less privileged neighbors: In fact, we probably shouldn’t. We can even label this evasion “love.” And we don’t need to sacrifice anything for our political beliefs—not our lives, not our time, not even a peaceful family dinner.
This summer, the summer of Ferguson, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also marked almost fifty years since the filming of A Time for Burning, a cinéma vérité documentary about white people trying and failing to rise to the challenges of the Civil Rights Movement. It chronicles a burning time like ours: a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to mourn, and a time to speak.
The film follows the story of Reverend Bill Youngdahl, a young liberal pastor at the all-white Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, who attempts to pursue better race relations in his community by partnering with nearby black churches to organize a series of voluntary interracial visits in church members’ homes.
Most of the film takes place in a bureaucratic world of weak coffee, metal folding chairs, and tense, interminable meetings. Heated conversations provide the drama as members of Augustana’s social ministry committee try to persuade the rest of the church to support the program. As committee member Ray Christensen says, pulling out all the stops, “If we don’t start now as a church, the world is going to pass us by on the biggest issue of our lifetime!” Getting a grudging go-ahead, the members then meet with their counterparts at the black churches to plan the proposed exchanges. But many members of Augustana are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of fraught interracial conversations, asking “Why be so revolutionary?” and muttering about bad timing. Congregational drama ensues, expressed through the passive aggressive conventions of Lutheran niceness. A frustrated Christensen asks: “A hundred years of preaching and where has it gone? Where has it gone?”
Although the film was initially commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates to provide an uplifting example of church-sponsored interracial dialogue, reality failed to cooperate. The interracial visits never happen, and Youngdahl is forced to resign. The film ends with ironic intercut images of black and white Christians receiving Holy Communion separately at their segregated churches—the opposite of communion.
A Time for Burning was nominated for an Academy Award, called “a glowing beauty” by the New York Times, and turned down by three television networks, presumably because of its unsettling message. Set in a city that was soon to be rocked by the so-called race riots of 1966, 1968, and 1969, the film raises some of the same questions that were posed in the Village Voice and driven home by the uprising in Ferguson: What, if anything, should privileged people do about political problems that they have the option to ignore? Should they challenge each other about their political sins and responsibilities, or should they keep the peace? Are discomfort and disagreement always bad? Are other things worse?
But unlike the advice in the Village Voice piece, the answers the film offers are anything but easy. This is partly because from the beginning, A Time for Burning puts privileged people’s political disagreements in the context of the lived experience and searing systemic analysis of oppressed people of color. Prompted by the filmmakers Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell, Youngdahl crosses color and class lines to meet with black people on their home turf, and Jersey and Connell consistently juxtapose the white people’s evasive arguments about race with the rigorous critiques of informed, exasperated African Americans. As a result, the desire of many white congregants for an unruffled peace comes to seem more and more dangerous. Uncomfortable conversations take on a new urgency.
We are all familiar with movies about black people starring white people: The Help, The Blind Side, and others too numerous to name. A Time for Burning is perhaps unique as a movie about white people that stars black people. Yes, it follows the familiar story of a well-meaning white liberal, the generous, brave, and sometimes naively optimistic Reverend Youngdahl. We get to know and care about him and his staunchest allies in the church, matter-of-fact Ted and open-hearted Ray, and we meet many other white people along the way—the conflict-averse bishop who tells Youngdahl that “I don’t think it’s dishonest to be to be diplomatic—what I call diplomatic, some other people might call it cowardice”; the Great Society mayor concerned about ghettos and white flight; the radical woman who has been crusading for civil rights for years and has lost friends and hope in the process; the mildly militant members of the social ministry committee who have never had a real conversation with a black person before and would rather like to have the chance; the reactionary church council members who keep repeating “it’s not the right time.”
But the analysis, the conscience, the charisma, and the context for the white church’s story are all provided by black people. The precocious members of the black church youth group diagnose white people’s problems with the crystal clarity of youth—young women and men talking excitedly over each other in bursts of feeling as they deconstruct religious hypocrisy with the gospel. The leaders of local black churches try to make the case for why now is the time, or why it might already be too late: Earl says, “We’re at the point now where demonstrations don’t work anymore. You have only one choice. Race riots, or forget it.” And then there is the unforgettable black nationalist barber Ernie Chambers and the working-class men who convene in his barbershop to discuss white folks’ self-deception and the connections between racism in Omaha and wars in Korea and Vietnam. A young boy getting a haircut looks on quietly and absorbs the best political education available in America.
I keep coming back to the early scene when Youngdahl first ventures out of his comfort zone to visit Chambers, who has decorated the walls of his barbershop with newspaper pictures of the black dead in Mississippi and Alabama, of white cops in sunglasses that erase their eyes, and white men with chaw in their cheeks rejoicing in a courtroom as lynchers go free. Chambers welcomes Youngdahl with a virtuosic verbal indictment that is also an appeal, an economic and religious analysis, a warning, and a declaration of despair. He speaks with a measured calmness, fluid and cool, casually snipping his customer’s hair and occasionally gesturing with a comb, but his words burn slow like a hot coal as the sweat pours down Youngdahl’s face:
I can’t solve the problem. You guys pull the strings that close schools. You guys drop the bombs that keep our kids restricted to the ghetto. You guys write up the restricted covenants that keep us out of houses. So it’s up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility. We’ve assumed ours for over four hundred years and we’re tired of this kind of stuff now. We’re not going to suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies. No more praying for those who despitefully use us. … You’re treaty-breakers, you’re liars, you’re thieves, you rape entire continents and races of people. Then you wonder why these very people don’t have any confidence and trust in you. Your religion means nothing, your law is a farce and we see it everyday. You demonstrated it in Alabama. And I can say “you” because you’re part of the whole system. You profit from it. In fact you make your living from it. … As far as we’re concerned, your Jesus is contaminated, just like everything else you’ve tried to force upon us is contaminated. So you can have him. … I think the problem is so bad that we can have no understanding at all. … You talk about justice and it means something to you, we talk about it and it means something else to us. And it will always be that way.
Even as Chambers disavows the possibility of racial reconciliation, even as he denies a shared language of justice, he states an inconvenient truth: in a nation in which white people control the wealth and the real estate and the education system and the government, black people can’t solve their problems on their own.
It is this speech that prompts Youngdahl to reflect, “Doggone it, we did this. We did do it. We’re all guilty, terribly guilty. But what do we do now? Do we sit around and despair? If we do, then let’s all knock ourselves off and get the heck off the earth. Or do we try to live together and work out a better life?”
Since the protests began last month, there have been lists circulating about what white people can do. The Huffington Post suggested one thing; Dame Magazine suggested ten; The Root suggested twelve. They are good lists, though they remind me a little of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s list at the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where she asks “But, what can any individual do?” (Her answers were “feel right”; pray; and make “some effort at reparation.”) The problem is that these lists have been circulating for hundreds of years. To quote A Time for Burning: “A hundred years of preaching, and where has it gone?” Or, to quote a viral sign held high by a woman marching in solidarity with Ferguson: “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!”
Still, lists are a place to turn when the world is on fire, and A Time for Burning has given me some resolutions to add to the long list I’m always writing for myself. I am completely unqualified to offer advice to anyone, but since I’m grateful for this film and what it’s taught me, I’ll confess my resolutions to you.
I don’t want to just “feel right” about race. In fact, I don’t want to feel right. I want to feel awkward. I want to feel the friction. As A Time for Burning suggests, healing and illuminating interracial conversations about race are a timeworn white fantasy—and even if they happen, which they mostly don’t, they can be an annoying time-suck for people of color, and falsely reassuring for white people. What’s truly necessary is for white people to have hard conversations about injustice with other white people, not gratuitous arguments but challenges that count. I once sat aghast and silent at a dinner table as a white NYPD cop who worked in the Bronx and a white millionaire who was partly raised by servants of color found common ground in jokes about black incarceration and undocumented Latinos—jokes that reflected real choices they would likely make in their lives, choices that would actually hurt people. In retrospect, their racist solidarity and my silence were all one; silence like mine is what makes this kind of lethal solidarity possible.
I want to be willing to bear some of the cost of racism, a cost that is so unevenly distributed and that is visible in rates of incarceration, unemployment, hypertension, diabetes, debt, infant mortality, stop and frisk, and death by guns. I want to bear my share of the cost not just in social discomfort but in tedium and tiredness, in my time and my bank account and my body. I love social media and t-shirts with slogans, and I think marches are energizing and photogenic, but I believe the battle is also being fought in the meetings that no one has time to go to: in school board and city elections, in voter registration drives, in budget debates and hiring decisions and referendums on the minimum wage. I want to show up when showing up is the last thing I want to do. I want to believe the battle is being fought in the hours I spend with my students trying to help compensate for the often segregated and unequal public school system. I want to believe it is being fought in how I choose to spend my days off and what I pray about and what I write about, and whether I write.
I want to be unafraid of failure, and I want to redefine failure. This is not a struggle that will ever be over. Just as there is an unbroken line from Emmett Till to Michael Brown, there is an unbroken line from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the woman who can’t believe she still has to protest this shit. Struggles for freedom fail only if we assume that unlike every other generation we are destined to see the end of the bent arc of the moral universe. After getting kicked out of Augustana, Bill Youngdahl proceeded to protest the Vietnam War, start an urban studies program at a Lutheran college, and work for justice for LGBT people in the church. Ernie Chambers has served in the Nebraska State Senate since before I was born, and he is just as fiery and unrelenting as ever. I’m not a historical figure and I don’t matter, but I believe it is better to live in the struggle, because like those long-ago Christians in Omaha I believe that sin is real, and I believe that religion is meaningful when it says that someday I will need to give an account of what I did with the racial privilege I was randomly given at birth, and of what I did about the burning injustice I sometimes chose not to see.
Canoers from SeaChange 2014, activists from Veterans For Peace, and inflatable art creators Tools for Action launched a 30-foot inflatable bomb over the Hudson River in Garrison, NY, across from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lettering on the side of the blimp read “U.S. Military: Largest Consumer of Oil, Largest Emitter of CO2.” The blimp was created for the Sept. 21, 2014, People’s Climate March in New York City with the intention of drawing attention to the role of war and the military in contributing to climate change and other environmental problems. While the Pentagon refuses to release fuel usage data, it’s been estimated that the U.S. military is responsible for five percent of total global greenhouse emissions, making it the largest institutional polluter in the world.
SeaChange 2014 is a flotilla of canoes, some made from paper, on a two-week trip down the Hudson holding educational events along the way. “On this voyage we will be visiting communities and ecosystems along the river and convening feasts and dialogs to open a channel for conversation about what is causing our local, global, ecological, and social degradation, and how we can cultivate resilience and resistance. No one is alone in this struggle; we all live downstream,” say organizers of the flotilla.
Hey, everyone! The Anti-Oppression Forum will be having our next meeting on Sunday, September 7th @4:30 PM at The Cafeteria Coffee House, 58 Main Street in New Paltz. Hope you can make it!