Study for Struggle: Feminisms in Motion

As a faithful subscriber to make/shift magazine for its decade-long run, I was really sad when it ended in 2017. The magazine was a crucial, if underappreciated, anti-racist feminist space for discussion and experimentation. That’s why I’m so grateful to the former editors, Jessica Hoffman and Darla Yudacufski, and to AK Press for putting out Feminisms in Motion, a wonderful collection of some of the many outstanding interviews and articles that the magazine published over the years. Check it out!

Here’s one gem from Hoffman and Yudacufski’s Introduction:

Intersectional feminism didn’t appear a few years ago. It has roots that go back forever, and it has been voiced and otherwise nurtured by women of color for generations. It is like a river moving through time, communities, and other contexts, full of differences and always changing. We have always envisioned make/shift as dipping into, reflecting on, and contributing to this river, putting into print a few of its moments and voices from a particular time. From 2007 to 2017, we published work by about 350 people who have added to the burbling of that river. It started flowing way before us and will continue long after us, and it is always bigger and more full of possibility than any one of us. It is multifaceted, simultaneous, and constantly shifting, a space where past, present, and future voices and actions flow together, overlap, diverge, and keep moving to make a world where everyone can be free.

Learning from the Past, Fighting in the Present

The Summer 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension features this piece, my inaugural “writing with movements” column for the magazine. I’m reposting it here with links included.

“How do you avoid the feeling that you should be working ALL THE TIME given the urgency of the state of the world?” My friend Heather Hax, an experienced activist, recently posted that question on Facebook. This sense of urgency is completely justified, and many of us are feeling it. We live in a profoundly frightening and unpredictable period, faced with the challenges of colonialism and climate catastrophe, economic austerity and state violence, and emboldened white supremacy and xenophobia.

The election of a Conservative government in Ontario is just the latest dispiriting episode in an international resurgence of reactionary politics. And although Doug Ford is not Donald Trump, I’m witnessing similar feelings of grief and panic among activists in Ontario as I saw while traveling around the U.S. last year. It’s terrifying to watch the far right exercising power, both in government and in the streets.

In these circumstances, I’ve been heartened to see activists and organizers turning toward social movement history for lessons and grounding. In Ontario, for instance, there has been renewed interest in learning from the Days of Action and other movement efforts during the Harris years. While I suspect there is still some serious reckoning we have to do with that period, this is definitely a promising approach.

Facing an urgent present, why dig into history? The short answer is that it’s invaluable for helping us to struggle more effectively. In the pace of movements and mobilizations, years can sometimes feel like decades and, with frequent activist turnover, we all too easily end up repeating similar mistakes and debates over and over again. Coming to know movement history can help us to learn from our missteps, build on our strengths, and have new discussions that propel us forward.

Let me offer some examples. Looking over recent histories of struggle, here are three lessons relevant to our current circumstances:

First, movements generally grow when they connect individual hardships to systemic realities. Organizing is about helping people to understand the difficulties in their lives as not just bad things happening to them individually, but rather as the result of social relations that benefit some people and hurt others. This is part of what consciousness-raising groups, at their best, achieved in the women’s liberation movement: spaces for women to understand their individual hardships as linked to shared experiences of oppression. In fostering such spaces, it’s worth remembering that people tend to respond better to questions about their lives than lectures about them.

Second, movements can generate power when they defend the most vulnerable and build bottom-up solidarity. Although the current arrangement of power harms most people in this society, we are not all affected in the same ways. As anti-racist feminists have illuminated, race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and ability operate with and through one another in shaping the forms and intensities of hardships that we face. If we want to challenge the system that benefits from our hardships, we have to acknowledge where we’re starting from and enact solidarity practically as we struggle. The experiences of direct action AIDS activists in Ontario during the early 1990s are instructive here. While fighting to establish public funding for drug access, they refused a government-proposed plan that would have only covered people living with HIV or AIDS; instead, they insisted that it cover all people with catastrophic illnesses and, through persistent and confrontational organizing, they ultimately won.

Third, movements tend to have more far-reaching effects when they are creative and bold. Circumstances are constantly changing and, if we want to intervene in them effectively, we shouldn’t be afraid to renovate old political approaches and try new ones. And sometimes audacity, grounded in solid organizing, can take us a surprisingly long way. I’m thinking here about the efforts of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories in 2007 to support Laibar Singh, a paralyzed refugee from India. That campaign culminated in a stunning action in which some 2000 people, largely South Asian, blockaded the Vancouver International Airport to stop Singh’s impending deportation. In that action, migrant justice organizers took a bold tactic from European activists and creatively shaped it for their own situation.

There are many more histories to learn from and many more lessons we can draw. Returning to Heather Hax’s question, perhaps one of the most profound lessons to take is this: other people, in other times, faced urgent crises in overwhelming circumstances, lived full lives, fought hard, and won victories. We can too.

Study for Struggle: Policing Black Lives

We are lucky to be living through a period of resurgent Black freedom struggle, and this upsurge, like others before it, is propelling brilliant intellectual work. Robyn Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, published last year by Fernwood, is a major contribution to this body of work. Drawing on extensive research, Maynard decisively demolishes the mythology of the Canadian state as a bastion of multiculturalism and racial equality. With great attention to both historical detail and lived experiences, she traces how anti-Black racism, deeply intertwined with settler colonialism, has structured ruling institutions and relations across the Canadian context over the last four centuries. Just as important, Maynard focuses on not only policing and prisons, but also many other key sites of racist state violence, including borders, schools, social assistance offices, and the child welfare system. Her analysis is expansive, accessible, and carefully considered. I highly recommend this book!

Here’s one gem from Maynard:

When state violence is mentioned, images of police brutality are often the first that come to mind. However, state violence can be administered by other institutions outside of the criminal justice system, including institutions regarded by most as administrative, such as immigration and child welfare departments, social services, schools and medical institutions. These institutions nonetheless expose marginalized persons to social control, surveillance and punishment, or what Canadian criminologist Gillian Balfour calls ‘non-legal forms of governmentality.’ These bureaucratic agencies, too, have the repressive powers generally presumed to belong only to law enforcement. They can police – that is, surveil, confine, control and punish – the behavior of state subjects. Policing, indeed, describes not only cops on their beat, but also the past and present surveillance of Black women by social assistance agents, the over-disciplining and racially-targeted expulsion of Black children and youth in schools, and the acute surveillance and detention of Black migrants by border control agencies. Many poor Black mothers, for example, have experienced child welfare agents entering and searching their homes with neither warrant nor warning – in some instances seizing children – as a result of an anonymous phone call. Further, state violence can occur without an individual directly harming or even interacting with another. It can be, in short, structured into societal institutions.

Getting It Together

The March/April 2018 issue of Briarpatch Magazine features this article that I co-wrote with the other members of Punch Up Collective: Alexis Shotwell, Amanda Wilson, and Dan Sawyer. I’m re-posting it here. This is a companion piece to a workshop that we have developed that focuses on starting and sustaining functional, effective collectives.

Every year since 2002, a small group of people has produced the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar, a showcase for gorgeous political artwork and thoughtful radical writing, and a fundraising tool used by activist groups across North America. Impressively, the people who produce the calendar do so in collaboration with three political prisoners incarcerated in upstate New York.

How do they manage to accomplish all of this year after year? Relationships, creativity, tenacity, and broader movement support are crucial. But there is clearly another key feature that has kept this project going: Certain Days is run by people organized as a collective – a small group in which all members share decision-making power, rotate leadership and responsibilities, and work collaboratively.

Four years ago, a group of us decided to start our own collective in Ottawa, on unceded Algonquin land. We came together after regularly encountering one another in local activist efforts. We discussed shared politics, investigated our terrain of struggle, identified potential alliances, and established goals for our activity. And then we got to work as the Punch Up Collective – pitching in with protests, organizing educational events, fundraising for campaigns, and constantly trying to learn from our accomplishments and mistakes.

We believe that collectives offer a promising approach to building something that we need in our movements and that can sustain us as people.

The importance of organization

In Ottawa, as in other places, many social justice initiatives are ad hoc and short-lived. Few activist groups manage to stick around longer than a year or two in any consistent form. It often feels as though we’re starting from scratch rather than expanding or strengthening our organizations and networks.

There are many reasons why groups don’t last. Most of us are working and living in precarious circumstances that produce isolation and disorganization. Beyond our material circumstances, it may be that movements also have difficulty being good spaces for people to stick around. In his essay “Someday We’ll Be Ready, and We’ll Be Enough: Building Anti-Authoritarian Movements with the Size and Resilience to Win,”activist Jeremy Louzao perceptively describes this: “Our movements themselves, their structures and attitudes, their narrowness and cultural insularity, their straight-up meanness, pettiness, and violence are all just as much to blame as any outside forces for the ways that we are constantly shedding solid and well-meaning people.”

What’s more, to create and sustain social justice efforts often means learning how to organize, and this isn’t easy to do. As Toronto-based organizer Syed Hussan puts it in a recent blog post, “Organizing is a skill set, it’s not just a set of ideals, and those skills must be honed. There are no schools, and few mentors.”

All of this makes the idea of getting from where we are now to creating movements that are broad-based and powerful enough to fundamentally change society seem incredibly daunting. When people primarily experience social justice efforts through small, often-dysfunctional groups that fade out quickly, it becomes hard to even picture what long-lasting, sustainable organizing might look like.

But it is possible to build organized, widespread, and resilient left infrastructure that can sustain itself over the long haul. This begins with stronger groups. Organizations, at their best, unleash collective capacities that are greater than the sum of the individuals involved. As Hussan writes, “One person can’t change anything. But a few people, working together, in comradeship[,] certainly can.” Organizations make it possible for people to be visionary and courageous, while also more focused, responsible, and effective.

What is a collective?

There are many useful kinds of organizations, including membership organizations, traditional unions, campaign-based groups, and more. But it’s collectives that we’re keen on. A collective is a non-hierarchical organization, usually with fewer than 20 members. One core aim of collective structure is to reduce the tendency for certain group members, whether formally or informally, to hold more power and influence than other members. For this reason, collectives generally make decisions using consensus or highly deliberative democracy, and many collectives emphasize skill-sharing and mutual support.

In collectives, tasks and roles are shared, often rotating among members so that no one person is always the one, for instance, speaking to the media or doing dishes. In her book Undoing Border Imperialism, Vancouver-based organizer Harsha Walia lays out the reasoning behind this: “Sharing tasks within our groups decentralizes knowledge, ensures a more sustainable division of labor, encourages learning, builds confidence with new skills, and strengthens interpersonal bonds as we work on projects together. Instead of only a few people being ‘in the know,’ this approach fosters a shared sense of responsibility and ownership over the group’s work.”

Collectives can take many different forms. Some collectives are open, always accepting new members, while others are closed, only admitting new people under certain circumstances. Collectives can be defined by their focus: identity-based, as with some groups in the Movement for Black Lives; project-based, as with the collective that runs the AKA Autonomous Social Centre in Kingston; or campaign-based, as with many No One Is Illegal groups. Some, such as the Graphic History Collective, go on indefinitely, while others are based on a particular moment or struggle, like the student activist collectives during the Quebec student strike of 2012.

Collectives, past and present

Collectives have been important formations throughout left history. During the Spanish revolution, grupos de afinidad (affinity groups) were building blocks of radical regional and national organizations. In the women’s liberation movement, collectives were central to organizing activities and running clinics and shelters. Collectives have also been crucial in the feminist organizing of women of colour. Two groundbreaking examples are the Black Women’s Collective in Toronto and the Combahee River Collective in Boston, the latter a group of Black feminists who formulated one of the earliest understandings of what is now called intersectional analysis. There is also a long tradition of collectively run left bookstores, including the Toronto Women’s BookstoreL’Androgyne in Montreal, and Spartacus Books in Vancouver.

In Ottawa, several successful, long-running projects were organized as collectives. The Ticket Defence Program, which provided free representation in municipal court for individuals charged with panhandling-related bylaw infractions, operated as a collective from 2003 through 2009, and still exists, though its structure has changed. The Carleton Food Collective, also known as the Garden Spot, was founded in 2001 and continues to operate a free soup kitchen. The 7-Year Squat defendants, arrested following the occupation of an abandoned building in 2002, collectively organized their own legal defence during several years of court proceedings, culminating in a month-long jury trial and complete acquittal on all charges.

Activists have used collectives in the anti-globalization movement, Indigenous solidarity work, migrant justice organizing, and many other efforts. Presently, collectives across North America run campaigns, produce activist media projects, coordinate radical spaces, provide legal support, conduct research for movements, and provide training, among a wide range of other activities.

Why build collectives?

Starting a collective doesn’t require significant resources or large numbers of people. It’s something you can do with a handful of people you see regularly and with whom you share some values. In circumstances of widespread isolation and disorganization, building a collective is a low-stakes entry point for those with limited time and energy who are trying to figure out how to engage in activism.

Collectives can also facilitate putting our visions into practice. In an interview in Chris Crass’ book Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, former Heads Up Collective member Rahula Janowski elaborates on this: “Many of the things I hope to see in that world are best manifested in the here and now through collectives – things like shared leadership; attention to interpersonal dynamics and how they reflect larger social issues; sharing of resources, be they material goods, relationships, or skills; and accountability to the people you live and work with.”

Importantly, collectives encourage a high level of political affinity and trust among members. Even if all members aren’t friends, membership can enable mutual support. This is best when it’s grounded in a shared sense of responsibility, alongside enough support and redundancy that members are able to pass on specific responsibilities to others when necessary. Collectives can also facilitate organizational, rather than individual, collaboration and accountability with other groups and campaigns.

At their best, collectives help people to stay politically involved, become more effective, and keep growing. Perhaps most importantly, collectives can enable members to turn their individual values and aspirations for a better world into ongoing collaborative work and, in turn, to reflect on and learn from that work.

Challenges and considerations

While a collective structure helps to address some common challenges for activists, organizing in collectives can present its own set of obstacles. One of the most pernicious and frequent problems occurs when people pretend that their collectives are structureless or leaderless, or that working in a collective nullifies the social relations of harm and benefit that run through the rest of the world. The problem here, as Walia writes, is that “the denial of structure and leadership just creates a layer of unspoken leadership, and informal hierarchies emerge. Based on systemic power imbalances around race, gender, and education level, as well as experience and comfort in activist circles, certain voices tend to dominate over others.” This is something we’ve witnessed time and again; it frequently leads to collectives falling apart, or certain members leaving, though often without a framework to explicitly name what’s happening.

Other times the collective structure itself can act as a barrier to addressing conflict. For instance, in a collectively run pirate radio station with which one of us was previously involved, the combination of shared vision, commitment to working together, and a meaningful project sometimes actively stood in the way of naming and responding to interpersonal harm and political disjuncture within the group. It’s vital for our political work to not stop simply because we’ve found a group of people with whom we are working on something we care about.

Even though collectives represent a non-hierarchical mode of organizing, this does not mean that they should not have structure. Quite the opposite!

Explicit politics and practices can contribute to shared power and collective leadership by making it plain to all members what is expected of them and their comrades, how decisions are made, and who is responsible for what. Early on, we established a conflict resolution and accountability framework, and we talked explicitly about our priorities for political work and our pace of activity. As a small collective of four people, it felt a bit silly to establish formal policies to guide our interactions and ways of working together, but these policies and explicit practices form a crucial foundation for our collective, enabling us to grow and work through difficult situations when they arise.

We’ve found, too, that collectives work best when they are based on clearly articulated shared aims and politics, and when they see themselves functioning as part of an ecosystem of broader movements. This can help to limit navel-gazing or an insular orientation and encourage the building of relationships among collectives and other organizing formations. Functional collectives also have shared understandings of the skills and capacities of members and actively work to develop these further.

Experimenting with answers

We often have many unanswered questions about how best to build and coordinate collectives, how to develop complementary vision and strategy, and how to fit our approach within a dynamic ecosystem of movements. However, all of us can more easily experiment with answers to such questions if we take a first step of coming together with other people in organized, sustained groups. Collectives are not the only way forward, but they represent a relatively easy and effective way to get organized and work together with mutual aid, co-operation, and care.

This is a moment of significant opportunity. Thousands of people are mobilizing for the first time, or rejoining the struggle after some time away. We firmly believe that well-organized collectives can contribute to resilient left infrastructure that will help us find one another, share knowledge and experience, stick it out over the long haul, and grow large-scale, formidable movements. Let’s build!

Study for Struggle: Direct Action

Following the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, L.A. Kauffman consistently offered some of the most insightful writing about the global justice movement. In the early 2000s, I was excited to hear that she was working on a much-needed book about the recent history of direct action politics in the U.S., and I’m so glad that it’s finally out! As far as social movement histories go, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, published by Verso, is unique and uniquely helpful. Rather than focusing on one movement, Kauffman traces the development of a set of direct action organizing practices from the tail end of the New Left through gay liberation, the nonviolent direct action movement, the anti-apartheid movement, ACT UP, the Central American solidarity movement, Earth First!, the global justice movement, the anti-war movement, occupy, and the movement for Black lives. Importantly, she foregrounds the work of women, especially queer women, in carrying and modifying these practices across movement experiences. Kauffman also brings refreshing clarity and nuance as she discusses both the contributions and limitations of direct action politics. This is a marvelous book, full of insights and lessons for transformative movements today!

Here’s one gem from Kauffman:

Waves of activism always recede, for one reason or another: because they succeed; because they fail; because movements sabotage themselves, or are sabotaged from the outside; because the organizers who create them burn out, or sell out, or become discouraged, or win something real and move on to another fight. The activist style that was so novel and edgy in the late eighties ran its course by the mid nineties, but the movements that created it transformed the practice of radical organizing in the United States in lasting ways. Their bold imagery, sophistication, daring, and political flair found their way into everything from the hip-hop criminal justice activism of California’s Third Eye Movement to the blockades that famously stopped the WTO meetings in Seattle. Most importantly, their concreteness and radical pragmatism showed that even relatively powerless outsiders could win meaningful victories when their actions were strategic rather than simply symbolic or expressive.

Study for Struggle: The Regulation of Desire

When I introduce Gary Kinsman to people who don’t know him, I usually say that he is a leading scholar of state regulation of sexuality in the Canadian context. He’s also a long-time queer liberation, anti-poverty, and anti-capitalist activist from whom I’ve learned a great deal. This past month I spent some delightful time reading Kinsman’s first book, The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, published as a revised edition back in 1996 by Black Rose Books. I now see how this book established Kinsman as a leading scholar! He offers a really helpful analytical framework – historical-materialist in the best sense – for looking at gender and sexuality, and he rigorously applies this framework to tracing the emergence and development of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality,” deeply enmeshed in state relations, in the Canadian context. Drawing on oral history interviews, activist publications, court proceedings, parliamentary debates, and other sources, Kinsman tells the story of state categorization, regulation, repression of sexuality, and the determined resistance of those who have fought for what we now would call queer liberation. This is an instructive book on a surprising number of levels; it’s definitely worth checking out!

Here’s one gem from Kinsman:

There is no need to code difference as disadvantage or deviance. We need to focus instead on social transformation and ending violence and the abuse of social power, not on dividing consensual sexualities into “deviant/normal” forms. The aim of this socialist-feminist pluralism would be to democratize sexuality by expanding the possibilities of non-exploitative sexual choices. This approach transforms the sexual agenda toward collectively clarifying the criteria on which to build our sexual communities and lives. An emphasis on choice, relationships, context, social equality, pleasure, and consent – taken together – could provide us with the initial basis for alternative sexual policies. One aim of such a perspective would be to expand the possibilities of choice and consent in people’s erotic lives and to ensure that these words have a real social meaning.

Study for Struggle: Normal Life

For several years, I’ve been hearing positive things about Dean Spade’s book Normal Life: Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, first published by South End Press and more recently published in a second edition by Duke University Press. Happily, I finally got a chance to read it, and now I can see why so many people appreciate this book! Not only does Spade elaborate a transformative politics of gender liberation, but he also offers a wonderfully accessible introduction to neoliberalism, a grounded critique of rights-based approaches to social change, and useful frameworks for understanding power and structural violence. In addition, Spade lifts up instructive examples of movement-based efforts that center the well-being of trans and gender-nonconforming people who are among the most vulnerable, exemplifying what he helpfully describes as “trickle up” social justice. Normal Life is a great book!

Here’s one gem from Spade:

I argue for a model of thinking about power and law that expands our analysis to examine systems that administer life chances through purportedly “neutral” criteria, understanding that those systems are often locations where racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, xenophobic, and transphobic outcomes are produced. Through this lens, we look more at impact than intent. We look more at what legal regimes do rather than what they say about what they do. We look at how vulnerability is distributed across populations, not just among individuals. This allows us to shape resistance strategies that have a better chance at actually addressing the conditions that concern us, rather than just changing the window-dressing that attends them.

Study for Struggle: Lavender and Red

I’m always hungry for histories of social movements that get into the nitty-gritty of developing shared politics, building organizations, dealing with internal conflicts, running campaigns, and carrying out direct actions. Emily Hobson’s book Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, published by the University of California Press, does this and so much more! Focusing on San Francisco, she charts the trajectory of the queer left from early gay liberation through direct action AIDS activism of the 1980s and 1990s. In telling this fascinating story, Hobson carefully takes us through lesbian feminism and gay radicalism into lesbian and gay Central American solidarity work, consistently emphasizing the commitment to solidarity and internationalism across these efforts. Narrative-driven and exhaustively researched, Lavender and Red is full of questions and lessons for advancing radical queer liberationist politics in today’s movements. I highly recommend it!

Here’s one gem from Hobson’s book:

The history of the gay and lesbian left also cautions us to consider the gaps that appear as certain locations of struggle begin to appear less relevant or assaults fade. It is striking that U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer radicals’ awareness of Central American politics virtually evaporated after the late 1980s, leaving few sustained connections. Nicaragua’s current, and now neoliberal, Sandinista government is isolating feminist activists and pursuing a massively privatized interocean canal, yet transnational links with Nicaragua seem nowhere to be found today. Likewise, in 2009, responses were scarce when the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras led to harsh persecution of LGBT people there. We must question what makes some sites of solidarity attractive while others are left ignored, and consistently assess our practices of solidarity lest they become inattentive or narcissistic.

Study for Struggle: Disability Politics & Theory

Looking for a solid introduction to disability justice? I recommend reading A.J. Withers’ book Disability Politics & Theory, published by Fernwood. After reading parts of it in study groups, I finally got a chance to read it cover to cover over the last month. Withers’ book is accessible, thoughtful, and historically grounded. I believe it’s a great starting-point for going deeper into a disability justice framework that can benefit all of our efforts to change the world.

Here’s one gem from Withers’ book:

we are all actually interdependent. Chances are, disabled or not, you don’t grow all of your food. Chances are, you didn’t build the car, bike, wheelchair, subway, shoes or bus that transports you. Chances are you didn’t construct your home. Chances are you didn’t sew your clothing (or make the fabric and thread used to sew it). The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of people who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized. The world has been built to accommodate certain needs and call the people who need those things independent, while other needs are considered exceptional. Each of us relies on others every day. We all rely on one another for support, resources and too meet our needs. We are all interdependent. This interdependence is not weakness; rather, it is part of our humanity.