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.

Interview with Sharmeen Khan

The new issue of Upping the Anti features an interview I conducted with the brilliant Sharmeen Khan, an extraordinarily committed activist and a founding editor of UTA who has been essential to the journal’s 10 years of continued publishing. Too often we don’t hear the stories of radical publications – how they started, how they continued, what challenges they faced, where they succeeded. This interview offers part of the story of UTA with lots of lessons for others trying to build and sustain radical publications of various kinds in increasingly inhospitable circumstances. As Khan says in the interview:

So many of our radical movements don’t have the capacity for – or perhaps take for granted the importance of – archiving political processes, discussions of strategy and tactics, and histories of our movements. When I think of movement histories, I often think of the smaller struggles or the failed struggles that don’t make it into history books. And for me, being a revolutionary hasn’t always been about being part of a huge, exciting movement. Often, it has been a struggle to keep things going. And I feel being able to respond, reflect, critique, or celebrate movements in particular periods helps revolutionary work in the future. It’s not to replicate tactics or politics, but to see how activists experimented with different approaches in particular times. Especially being centered in Canada, I want UTA to be used by activists to speak to other movements in different areas.

For the Long Haul

The July/August 2016 issue of Briarpatch Magazine features this article. I’m re-posting it here. This piece combines some of the reflections I presented at Another Politics book events with thoughts and experiences that activists across North America shared in discussions at those events. A longer version of this article will appear in a forthcoming book collection from The Radical Imagination Project.

Over the last decade, I’ve travelled around the U.S. and Canada, talking with people involved in a variety of radical movements. Along the way, I’ve heard stories, ideas, worries, and questions about struggles for social transformation – a kind of collective brilliance that I’m eager to share widely. While I’ve encountered many themes across these conversations, one that has struck me is “the long haul,” a concept that came up in conversations with community organizers in Boston, Indigenous solidarity activists in Winnipeg, labour organizers in Los Angeles, and youth activists in Vancouver, among other places. It clearly resonates.

The basic idea of the long haul is this: building large-scale movements capable of fundamentally transforming society requires people to work together, with persistence, over decades and across generations. Those of us committed to creating radical change can and should fight for victories along the way, and as the late historian Howard Zinn regularly asserted, we can anticipate that there will be many unexpected turns, both positive and negative. But there will be few certainties, many setbacks, and no infallible formulas for action. Although it’s not easy, the only way forward is to stick around in struggle.

Based on this conviction, I began giving short presentations called “For the Long Haul” while on tour in 2014–2015 with my book Another Politics. Very consistently, these presentations catalyzed discussions among groups of activists. I’d like to describe my own journey into these discussions and share some of the questions and insights I’ve come across.

A long view

I grew up a white guy in a middle-class suburb of Anchorage, Alaska, on traditional Dena’ina territory. My relatively privileged life didn’t offer me many resources for making sense of the col-onialism, poverty, gendered violence, militarism, and ecological destruction that I encountered in Alaska. But while attending a public alternative school in the early 1990s, my anarchist and socialist teachers presented more critical ways of understanding the world. As the U.S. government was carrying out the first Gulf War, my friends and I were taking classes in developing nations studies, the civil rights movement, and women’s literature. We read radical history and theory voraciously, discussed politics constantly, and started organizing around environmentalism, feminism, labour solidarity, and democracy at our school.

We also began to see ourselves as participants in long lineages of struggles for justice and dignity. While learning about past movements was an important part of this for me, even more crucial was building relationships with elder radicals who had been active in those movements. One of these people was Ruth Sheridan, whom I first met when she came to speak in my Grade 8 labour history class. Sheridan, then in her 70s (and now in her 90s), is a lifelong anarchist who has participated in the Industrial Workers of the World, the women’s liberation movement, the Central American solidarity movement, waves of antiwar organizing, and much more. She has a keen mind, a hearty laugh, an indomitable spirit, and a fierce love for people.

Neither Sheridan nor the other older radicals in her circle are famous. Their names will probably never appear in history books and their individual contributions will be mostly forgotten, except by their close comrades and loved ones. They knew this, and yet they kept going, sustaining lives in struggle through major wars, mass movements, state repression, political transitions, new upsurges, and crushing defeats. They were in for the long haul; they carried, as Spanish anarchist José Buenaventura Durruti Dumange used to say, a new world in their hearts. Their steadfastness profoundly shaped my political consciousness.

One of the most important things I learned from Sheridan and others like her is that sticking around in struggle is easier when we cultivate “a long view,” an expression that suggests two things. First, things have been – and can be – different. After all, most of the social relations and structures that we currently take for granted – race, prisons, the nuclear family, waged work, fossil fuels, and much more – are comparatively recent developments in human history; they can be challenged and changed. Second, as a migrant justice activist from Tucson pointed out to me, a long view involves viscerally experiencing ourselves as links in an intergenerational chain of struggle; we build on the sacrifices and contributions of those who came before us, and we make our own sacrifices and contributions for those who will come next.

Challenges

But, let’s be honest: holding a long view is helpful but not sufficient for staying involved for the long haul. Our movements face consistent challenges that are shaped by how power is presently organized and administered. The ruling relations in our society generate immense wealth and power for a very small proportion of the population while creating differentiated misery among the vast majority and ecological destruction across the planet. This social structure affects the challenges we confront while building resilient movements – including precarious work, fragmented communities, state violence, and displacement. Overcoming these sorts of challenges requires organizing on a scale that most of us are really only beginning to imagine.

Other challenges for sustaining long-haul efforts are more directly rooted in movement cultures. These are ways in which we, as activists and organizers, trip ourselves up through our habitual patterns of acting and relating. While these challenges grow out of ruling relations, those of us involved in movements bear real responsibilities for sustaining them. I’ll focus on two such challenges here, both of which have come up regularly in my discussions with people in the U.S. and Canada.

The first is the tendency for movements to replicate, however unconsciously, oppressive values and practices from the society in which we live. This is nothing new; many who have come before us (notably, radical women of colour feminists in the 1960s and 1970s) have observed this tendency. Still, it’s worth repeating the insight: even as we fight hierarchies based on gender, ability, race, sexuality, class, and other ruling relations, these hierarchies have shaped us and we frequently participate in reproducing them. As New York prison abolitionist Pilar Maschi said to me, “We’re trying to break down the system, and it lies in all of us.”

We can see the replication of the systems of oppression in the types of people who most often step confidently into leadership roles in movements (often men, usually white and able-bodied, frequently university-educated), the ongoing reality of sexual assault among activists, and the movement activities that regularly get the most social recognition (writing, public speaking, and high-risk direct action). This is also visible in the exclusionary assumptions that sometimes get built into campaigns – as, for instance, when immigrant rights efforts have used the slogan, “we’re not criminals,” which leaves out anyone who has ever been entangled in the criminal justice system.

This is a significant challenge. Oppressive values and practices don’t just mar our liberatory aspirations. They also undermine our effectiveness: they spread hurt and distrust, corrode alliance-building, impede visionary strategy-making, damage and sometimes destroy organizations, and hold people back from stepping into their full capabilities. And though I understand why many radicals have become jaded about all of this, I side with those who say we can do better.

A key part of this shift is recognizing that no one is untouched by power relations. As feminist theorist and activist Alexis Shotwell argues in her forthcoming book, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, “We need to shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.” This means working with commitment and intention to shift oppressive values and practices – and reduce their everyday harms – without pretending to be untainted by them. It means that, even with the best of intentions, our efforts will be imperfect and contradictory. Building long-haul movements, I believe, requires patience, humility, and a determination to struggle with this challenge without easy answers or quick resolution.

The second challenge is the tendency toward suspicion, rivalry, and dismissal in activist circles. A longtime radical at an event in Boston described this as “a climate of contempt on the left.” And though rarely written about, this is something many have experienced. Indeed, whenever this topic comes up in discussions, I’ve found it quickly evokes head nods and horror stories about takedowns on social media, organizational territorialism, activist social status hierarchies, sectarian posturing, and a general atmosphere of radical self-righteousness.

Kim Smith and Nick Montgomery, two graduate student activists I met in Victoria, helped me to better understand this tendency. Building on queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s use of the concept, they propose that “paranoid reading” has become the dominant mode of engagement on the radical left. This is a way of relating with people, ideas, and activities by looking primarily for their failures and limitations; it’s about criticizing first and asking questions later, if at all. Smith and Montgomery suggest that “a paranoid stance tends towards constant vigilance, so that there can be no bad surprises. But the upshot of this is that there can’t be any surprises at all when we’re paranoid, because we close off our capacity to be curious, open, and vulnerable.” While this stance is justified and useful at times, it becomes problematic when it’s the dominant approach because “it tends to force out other ways of relating,” Smith and Montgomery say. “Kindness, curiosity, gratitude, and other ways of relating can come to seem naive or counter-productive when paranoia is the reflex.”

Ways of relating based on objectification, competition, and exclusion are deeply ingrained in how power works in this society. It’s not surprising that these corrosive ways of relating seep into movements – thriving, in fact, in the last few decades of weakness and defeat for the left. In this period when radical activist culture has become closely connected to universities, it’s also not surprising that “paranoid reading,” as a pervasive mode in academia, has had such influence on the left.

Still, we have a responsibility to reach toward other, more affirmative ways of being and acting. As Montreal anti-prison organizer Helen Hudson pointed out to me, “struggle can be a really humanizing experience.” That is, when people come together to fight collectively, we can feel our own humanity and the humanity of others in profound ways. People are more likely to stick around, I believe, when movements offer opportunities to experience kindness, curiosity, gratitude, and care as part of effective collective action to change the world.

Lessons

There are things we can do right now to build long-haul movements. Across North America, thousands of people are deeply, earnestly engaged in transformative initiatives and are developing valuable knowledge about what they’re doing. Activists and organizers are crafting a variety of innovative approaches for sustaining struggles, but we frequently lack the time and mechanisms for sharing what we’re learning across places and movements. In one small effort to remedy this, I’ll highlight two lessons that I’ve encountered repeatedly.

The first lesson is that long-haul movements need organizations – intentionally structured groups of people with shared goals and activities. This is something I’ve heard from many people, but Rachel Herzing, an Oakland-based prison industrial complex abolitionist and co-founder of Critical Resistance, makes this point particularly well. During a conversation in Berkeley, Herzing said, “Re-orienting toward organization and talking about the variety of formations it can take – whether that’s a network, an organization, a coalition, etc. – really is important to me in terms of thinking about the long term. So, what is possible to build not only as a collection of individuals but when you put an organizational form to work in terms of organizing?” Organizations, at their best, can become much more than “collections of individuals”: they can generate collective power, hold memory and vision, and steadily build, even during movement downturns.

I recognize that this point may be controversial. In some parts of the anti-authoritarian left especially, I’ve encountered reticence toward developing anything more than small and/or short-term groups and projects. I have some sympathy for this. Too often on the left, “building organizations” actually means erecting party or party-like structures that tend to be top-down, male-dominated, obsessed with toeing a “political line,” instrumental in how they treat people, and vanguardist in how they relate with popular struggles. But with care and intention, I think we can avoid that long-standing rut. As Herzing suggested, let’s explore a variety of forms. If we want to grow and coordinate long-haul movements, we need resilient, bottom-up organizations through which people can, together, develop liberatory visions, make plans, take action, learn, be accountable, and care for and defend one another.

Thankfully, activists and organizers are already engaged in some valuable organizational experiments. These include multi-tendency left organizations such as Solidarity Halifax, grassroots coalitional efforts such as the Southern Movement Assembly in the U.S. South, radical worker centres such as Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre, collectively run non-profits such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, democratic membership organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in south Florida, networks of movement-based collectives such as No One Is Illegal in Canada, working-class self-defence organizations such as the Seattle Solidarity Network, and bottom-up labour unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union. We can learn a lot from the experiences of all of these models while we also experiment further.

The second lesson is that long-haul movements must be intergenerational. Sustained efforts to transform the world need contributions and continuity from people throughout their lives. Rahula Janowski, an anti-racist organizer with the Catalyst Project in San Francisco, has consistently articulated this point. In a 2007 article for Left Turn, she writes, “mono-generational movements that do not include people in all stages of life will neither move nor win. We need communities that are strong, that can withstand difficult times and challenges, and that can nurture and support its members to continue the work. A community of resistance that is multi-generational will have a continuum of memory, will carry lessons from one generation to the next, and will be a base for strong multi-generational movements.”

We still have a ways to go before we have movement cultures in which most people stick around as they grow older and, particularly, as they have children. In radical activist scenes especially, people tend to “age out” by their 30s, if not earlier. But lately, I’ve been excited to encounter increasingly more people who are serious about intergenerational movement-building. Doing this well, they suggest, will require growing in at least a couple of directions.

One is about opening space for kids and families. It’s no coincidence that some of the most influential advocates for intergenerational movements (including Victoria Law, China Martens, and Cynthia Dewi Oka) are mothers. They bring sharp perspectives about the ways in which many radical initiatives, mostly unintentionally, exclude children and the adults responsible for them. They also highlight the benefits of welcoming families in movement efforts: more intentionality in caregiving activities, deepened relationship-building, new opportunities for organizing, more play and creativity, and greater participation and leadership from the women and gender non-conforming people who overwhelmingly tend to care for kids.

Some of the most tangible efforts to take up this direction of work are city-based radical child-care collectives, many of which loosely coordinate through the Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives. Closely collaborating with grassroots organizations, these collectives provide child care for parents involved in political activities while developing broader kid-friendly movement culture.

Another direction for intergenerational growth is opening space for people beyond their early adulthoods and especially in their later years. One thing that has repeatedly struck me as I’ve travelled is how rarely younger and older radicals, particularly in bigger cities, interact. (Bear in mind that, in youth-oriented activist time, “older” can be as little as five years’ age difference.) This kind of generational segregation is tremendously debilitating for movements. It deprives older people of the energy and insight of younger people, and it cuts younger people off from the endurance and knowledge of older people.

What can we do to change this? Building organizations, as I mentioned earlier, is key. We could really use more structures that hold and nourish people as they age to ensure that, as they encounter new life demands, they remain involved in political activities. Disability justice also offers a crucial starting point for building intergenerational movements. As organizers in numerous places have told me, this partly means creating organizations and campaigns with multiple points of entry and engagement, rather than simplistically assuming that people are either available for everything or are not serious activists. Across life stages and abilities, people experience a variety of limits on what – and how much – they can do, and they also have a beautifully wide array of contributions to make. We need our structures and culture to recognize, invite, and facilitate their involvement.

We can also learn from activists and organizers who have already been cultivating cross-generational relationships. In Vancouver, for instance, No One Is Illegal conducted and filmed interviews with older radicals, making the videos available through its Inheriting Resistance project. I’ve found that people involved in supporting political prisoners tend to be especially deliberate about this kind of relationship-building. They understand that many dedicated revolutionaries of earlier generations have been imprisoned or murdered, and thus are significantly cut off from younger generations. In the words of Helen Hudson, “the state actively tries to separate generations of organizers.” This analysis is partly what led Hudson and others to work on the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar, a yearly cross-generational collaborative project between younger activists and older imprisoned radicals. These types of initiatives point toward the vibrant intergenerational movements that, with intentionality and creativity, we can grow.

Building in a movement moment

There is no question in my mind that we are in a movement moment. Black Lives Matter is blossoming alongside a growing movement against the prison industrial complex, and there are still significant reverberations from the Occupy movement experience. Idle No More has re-energized anti-colonial struggles, and the Quebec student movement has set a benchmark for large-scale, combative struggles against austerity. Across the continent, migrant justice and climate justice organizing are especially on the rise, and activists involved in both are increasingly bringing direct action and radical vision. And there is much more happening, too. Although movements still are quite weak, these are encouraging openings.

Stephanie Guilloud, an organizer with Project South in Atlanta, summed this up during a discussion in Brooklyn: “so many people are moving into motion right now.” Consequently, she said, “a big question that faces longtime organizers is, how do we support large numbers of people moving into motion and sustain that activation over time?” At least in part, this is a question of the long haul: how do we develop movement cultures and structures that can last beyond the high points of mobilizations, maintain momentum, and provide ways for people to stay involved in lifelong struggle? We can answer this by reckoning with challenges and limitations, especially ones we generate ourselves, and building on the rich experiences and insights that our movements possess. This, I believe, is how we can turn a moment of upsurge into a sustained confrontation with dominant institutions and relations, and realize the new world in so many hearts.

Movement Knowledge

When people come together to struggle for justice and dignity, they frequently produce some of the most vital and innovative ways of understanding themselves and the world. Robin Kelley puts this well in Freedom Dreams: “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.”

This is something I love about movements: at their best, they create ways of doing and thinking that point beyond taken-for-granted ideas and toward visionary possibilities. Consider, for example, the successes of feminist struggles over the last half-century in politicizing parts of social life that were previously considered “personal,” such as sexual violence, intimate relationships, housework, and child-rearing. Or, to take another example, consider how prison abolitionists are creating approaches for reducing harm and creating community safety that don’t rely on cops, courts, or incarceration.

In highlighting the capacities of movements to generate knowledge, I don’t believe I’m making a novel or controversial point. In fact, I think it’s a pretty obvious one. Most people who have spent time in movements have experienced collective forms of learning, research, and analysis, even if no one used those sorts of terms to describe what was happening.

But it turns out that this point is controversial in many scholarly contexts, where the reigning assumption is that academic intellectuals are the ones who come up with the most important ideas about the world. In “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed,’” Joe Kadi points out that this assumption fundamentally rests on “the social lie that poor people are stupid.” It separates out a specialized set of people as the only ones capable of producing knowledge – or at least knowledge of any consequence. And in this way, it reinforces systems of domination, exploitation, and oppression.

I encountered this assumption in graduate school when I was required to read a lot of books and articles in the academic subfield known as “social movement studies.” In Learning Activism, Aziz Choudry tactfully describes much of this literature as showing “a relative lack of attention to, awareness of, and sometimes even condescension toward the processes and practices of learning and producing knowledge in movements.” Put more bluntly, this scholarship mostly ignores or belittles movement knowledge.

Reading that literature, with its self-importance and frequent disregard for actual people in struggle, made me angry. So, my friend Doug Bevington and I began channeling our shared frustration into writing a critique of social movement studies that was eventually published as “Movement-Relevant Theory.” Among other things, we emphasized what we called “movement-generated theory” – the self-reflective activity of people engaged in struggle. We saw this as a modest contribution toward validating movement knowledge in one small corner of academia.

Since publishing that article in 2005, I have regularly encountered people in and around universities – mostly graduate students, but also undergraduates and professors – who are attempting to do relevant movement-based research while facing intense skepticism, and sometimes outright attacks, from supervisors and colleagues. They’re frequently looking for resources to help them justify movement knowledge as a legitimate source for their academic scholarship.

To help, I’ve been actively curating a list of books to share. I suggest these texts not only for their insights into movement-based research, but also for their use as a kind of “citational shield” (i.e., you can cite them to defend your focus on movement knowledge). I include my list here, which I’ll update with new additions as I find them. And beyond these books, I also recommend looking at the work of Convergence, Interface, the Radical Imagination Project, the Research Group on Collective Autonomy/Collectif de recerche sur l’autonomie collective, the Team Colors Collective, and Undercommoning.

On Movement-Based Research:

Aziz Choudry, Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, eds. Learning From the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Caelie Frampton, Gary Kinsman, AK Thompson, and Kate Tilleczek, eds. Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/Social Research. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.

Jeffrey Juris and Alex Khasnabish, eds. Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish, Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity. London: Zed Books, 2014.

Charles R. Hale, ed. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber, with Erika Biddle, eds. Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Oakland: AK Press, 2007.

Examples to Learn From:

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.

Douglas Bevington, The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear. Washington: Island Press, 2009.

Andrew Cornell, Oppose and Propose! Lessons from Movement for a New Society. Oakland: AK Press, 2011.

Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso, 2002.

Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Deborah Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997.

Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile. The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Jenna Lloyd, Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Ian McKay, Rebels, Red, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2005.

Scott Neigh, Gender and Sexuality: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Laura Pulido, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. Toronto: Penguin, 2005.

Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.

Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986. Oakland: AK Press, 2012.

Becky Thompson, A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press, 2013.

Kids in Movements

I’m a vocal proponent of creating intergenerational movements. But, I confess, I haven’t always been. This topic didn’t become significant to me until I was in my mid-twenties and spending regular time at a San Francisco anarchist collective house that included a child. Rahula Janowski, the mother of that child and a longtime activist, was one of the first people to talk with me about intergenerationality and radical politics. In a 2007 article for Left Turn, she laid out her argument very persuasively:

Although outright hostility towards parents and children in radical left spaces is uncommon, there is an undercurrent of hostility or at least ambivalence about parents and children in many radical movements in the U.S. Meanwhile, the radical left in the U.S. is small, fractured, and struggling, and our communities of resistance are largely racially segregated, mono-generational, and unsustainable. One important way to build the strength of our communities of resistance, and through that build the strength of our movements for radical social change, is to develop multi-generational movement cultures that embrace and support parents, all kinds of families, and folks of all ages.

We still have a ways to go before we have radical political cultures in which most people stick around as they grow older and, particularly, as they have children. In activist scenes especially, people tend to “age out” by their thirties, if not earlier. And sustaining space for people to participate in movements in the later years of their lives remains a challenge in many radical contexts (and deserves much more discussion, I believe). But lately I’ve been excited to encounter more and more people who are serious about including kids and families in movements.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most influential advocates for intergenerational movements (including Victoria Law, China Martens, Cynthia Oka, and others) are generally mothers. They bring sharp perspectives about the ways in which many radical initiatives – mostly unthinkingly, sometimes not – exclude children and the adults responsible for them. As well, they highlight the benefits of welcoming families in movement efforts, including more intentionality around caregiving activities, deepened relationship-building, new opportunities for organizing, more play and creativity, and greater participation and leadership from the women and gender non-conforming people who overwhelmingly tend to care for children.

To learn more from these kinds of perspectives, I recommend reading Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind edited by Victoria Law and China Martens and listening to this interview with the Halifax Motherhood Collective. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams have also just published a collection called Revolutionary Mothering and are currently touring. On the more abstract end, I suggest exploring materialist feminist work on social reproduction.

Some of the most tangible efforts to take up intergenerational movement-building in North America are city-based radical childcare collectives, many of which loosely coordinate through the Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives (check the website for links to specific collectives as well as resources). Closely collaborating with grassroots organizations, these collectives provide childcare for parents involved in political activities while developing broader kid-friendly movement culture. And sometimes these collectives organize kid-oriented spaces at larger radical gatherings, such as the annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit.

For firsthand reflections on childcare collective activities, I recommend this interview with a member of the Montreal Childcare Collective. For a practical guide to organizing kid-oriented spaces at activist events, see this resource manual that China Martens compiled. And for a quick run-down of basic ways to create intergenerational movements, check out these tips from Victoria Law.

The collaborative thinking of New York City’s Regeneración Childcare Collective has especially influenced how I approach intergenerational movement-building. As they powerfully write in their vision statement:

When movements provide people of all ages a way to participate in their own liberation – from the very young to the very old – they are capable of fantastic things. Intergenerational movements sustain themselves through periods of intense repression and regenerate over time. They develop profound collective memory, which allows each generation to learn from the experiences of those that came before. They offer more than a scene, which one dips into and out of on a whim, or a phase, which one ultimately abandons for more serious responsibilities. Intergenerational movements create cultures of resistance that people use to understand themselves, their communities, and collective action in the world throughout their entire lives.

How do you think about and practice intergenerational movement-building? What models have you learned from?

And that’s a wrap!

After 15 months, 44 cities, and 72 events, the Another Politics Tour is done. I have been completely blown away by all of the inspiring people I’ve encountered, across North America, working diligently and creatively to build effective, visionary movements. I’ve learned so much from you all, and I hope I’ve managed to circulate some useful lessons coming out of our collective experiences. Many thanks to the University of California Press for publishing the book and to AK Press for helping to distribute it. Thanks too to my comrades in the Punch Up Collective, the Institute for Anarchist Studies, Upping the Anti, and Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar for their consistent support. And most of all, I offer tremendous gratitude to the hundreds of activists, organizers, visionaries, and fighters whose efforts made the four tour legs possible. I am awed by everyone who put me in touch with reliable local activists, set up events, spoke alongside me, offered childcare, provided food, oriented me in unfamiliar cities, hosted me in their homes, gave me rides, raised funds, invited me into their classes, received boxes of books in the mail, attended events, contributed thoughts to discussions, and/or shared experiences in late-night conversations. As some of you know, I take my motto from the radical German death metal band Heaven Shall Burn: “Nothing, just nothing, nothing will wipe this heart out.” This, I’m fully convinced now, is a heart that we sustain together.

dalia_shevin_your_heart_is_a_muscle_the_size_of_your_fist

Image created by Dalia Shevin

Another Politics Southwestern Ontario and U.S. Midwest Tour

Drawing on interviews with dozens of experienced organizers, Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements engages the convergence of anti-authoritarian radicalism and broader-based movements in the U.S. and Canada. From this convergence, a growing set of activists – from anti-poverty organizers in Toronto to prison abolitionists in Oakland, from occupy activists in New York to migrant justice organizers in Vancouver – are developing shared politics and practices. These efforts combine anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression politics with grassroots organizing among ordinary, non-activist people. Another Politics explores these efforts and distills lessons for building effective, visionary movements.

Chris Dixon, originally from Alaska, is a longtime anarchist organizer, writer, and educator with a PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz. His writing has appeared in numerous book collections as well as periodicals such as Anarchist Studies, Clamor, Left Turn, and Social Movement Studies. He serves on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and the advisory board for the activist journal Upping the Anti. Dixon lives in Ottawa, Canada, on unceded Algonquin Territory, where he is a member of the Punch Up Collective.

Goals of the Another Politics Tour:

  • Lift up valuable and inspiring organizing currently happening
  • Catalyze spaces for discussion and reflection in our movements
  • Share some recent history and open up difficult questions
  • Spread a sense of possibility, intentionality, and experimentation
  • Distribute the 2016 Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar

All money raised on this tour beyond covering travel costs will go to support radical grassroots initiatives.

Tour Schedule

Hamilton: November 3

7:00-9:00pm – The Tower, 281 Cannon Street East: Another Politics public lecture

Guelph: November 4

6:00-9:00pm – University of Guelph, MacKinnon 233: For the Long Haul workshop

Detroit: November 7

1:30-3:30pm – Cass Corridor Commons, 4605 Cass Avenue: For the Long Haul presentation

Toledo: November 9

6:30-8:30pm – West Toledo Public Library, 1320 Sylvania Avenue: For the Long Haul presentation

Chicago: November 11

6:00-8:00pm – Bucktown/Wicker Park Public Library, 1701 N. Milwaukee Avenue: Taking Ourselves Seriously presentation

Madison: November 14

3:00-5:00pm – Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, 426 West Gilman Street: Another Politics book launch

Milwaukee: November 16

12:00-2:00pm – Marquette University, Alumni Memorial Union, Ballroom A: Another Politics public lecture

6:00-8:00pm – People’s Books Cooperative, 804 East Center Street: For the Long Haul presentation

Minneapolis: November 18

6:00-8:00pm – Boneshaker Books, 2002 23rd Avenue South: Another Politics book launch

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Another Politics banner graphic designed by Krishna Lalbiharie
Another Politics poster designed by Shannon Willmott
Workshop posters and banner graphics designed by Angus Maguire

Beyond a Radical Minority

Carwil Bjork-James recently interviewed me for Agency‘s new “Anarchist Profiles” series. I’m re-posting it here. Definitely check out Agency!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your own background and how that led to writing this book.

I am originally from Anchorage, Alaska, on traditional Dena’ina territory and I currently live in Canada, in the national capital Ottawa, which is on unceded Algonquin territory. Between those two parts of my life, I lived on the West Coast of the United States in every single state, and I moved into the Canadian context about eight years ago. And in all of those different places, really since I was in my early teens, I’ve been involved in radical activism related to antiracism, environmentalism, labor solidarity, feminist politics, and environmental defense.

What led me into graduate school was my hope to try to use the resources of where I went, the University of California at Santa Cruz, to try to further the struggles that I care about. I went in basically to try and do research and ultimately write a dissertation that would provide some space for reflecting on a whole set of transformative politics and radical activist efforts across North America. Ultimately, what that involved was me traveling around the US and Canada interviewing dozens and dozens of long-time anti-authoritarian activists and organizers involved in a whole bunch of different kinds of movements. And I was asking a series of questions that basically came down to: What are we learning as we do this? What kinds of challenges are we consistently coming up against? And what kinds of unanswered questions are we still struggling with in the midst of all of this? That’s the research that became this book.

Your book centers on something you call the anti-authoritarian current. Can you give us your definition of who or what that is?

The thumbnail way I define this current has two parts. First, this is a political tendency that defines itself by being opposed to all forms of domination, oppression, and exploitation and really draws on the vital legacy of women of color feminism and this idea that systems of oppression and exploitation—whether we’re talking about patriarchy, heterosexism, white supremacy, ableism, capitalism, so on—actually work with and through one another and cannot be disentangled from one another. And in fact require, if we’re going to try and ultimately do away with them and create a different way of relating, a whole different social structure. That’s going to require us to have a kind of multilayered revolutionary politics that takes on all of these things at once. It’s about taking up a very rigorous sort of anti-oppression—what some people might call “intersectional”—politics.

The other part—and I think this as equally important in defining the anti-authoritarian current as far as I see it—is a commitment to organizing. So, a commitment to trying to build movements beyond self-selected circles of already identified activists. Organizing is about trying bring people together in the places where they are, based in struggles that are somewhat connected to their daily conditions of life, and building power there to try to transform the system.

One thing I think is really important to clarify is when I say anti-authoritarian current, I don’t just mean anarchists. In fact, there are many anarchists who probably wouldn’t see themselves as part of this current, whose politics or practical day-to-day activities aren’t really a part of this current.

How much was this book is intended as a way to encourage people in a very multi-segmented current to see one another across differences within the movement, or different origins in terms of which activist tradition they’re a part of?

A lot of what’s happening right now with broad social and ecological justice activism is that it is very segmented. I was hoping to at least lift up some common themes, questions, and experiences, that I was hoping could create a situation where people might have some mutual recognition. And so far my experience while going on tour with this book—which is what I’ve been doing over the last several months, I’ve been in more than thirty cities—my experience is that people are very hungry for ways to think about the connections between what they’re doing in their particular place, and what people are doing in another place. There are some common questions and values at play, and there are lessons that people can often learn across these really intense segments.

Right now, it’s absolutely clear that many people are getting activated through Black Lives Matter. And Black Lives Matter is connected to a long Black freedom struggle in the United States and globally as well, and it’s also connected to the movement against the prison industrial complex, which has really been developing very significantly over the last twenty years. Going back a few years, many people also came in through the Occupy movement. And as they came in, anarchist politics really loomed large—anarchist politics with both its problems and its possibilities. I think that was a really key entry point for a whole other cohort.

Even as people come in through particular trajectories, I do see a lot of cross-pollination happening right now. Many people I spoke to talked in terms of an idea of a synthetic politics, trying to learn from a variety of traditions and experiences and draw out the best of those traditions and experiences, while also being critical about the failings, the limits of many of those movement histories and also current day politics. So, I do feel like we’re in a moment where lots of people are trying to draw on various things and I think that’s valuable, important and useful.

Can you talk about what you’ve observed particularly for people for whom anarchism is their home base? Where are they coming into this conversation? What particular ideas and critiques do they bring to the larger movements in which they participate?

A lot of people that I’ve been encountering more recently who are coming into anarchist politics bring what I see as some of the real strengths of anarchist politics. These include a strong commitment to deeply democratic or highly participatory forms of self-organization, and really prioritizing that in all the movement spaces that we come into. And also a real strong commitment to direct action, to using confrontational forms of protest to try and create disruption and push at this system in ways that can make a difference. Another thing that I see a lot of anarchists bringing in this moment that is really useful, is a commitment to what is often called prefigurative politics: this idea that to the greatest extent possible, we should try and bring in our visions and values for the better society to what we’re trying to do right now and how we’re trying to organize and using those to build institutions right now that try to serve people’s immediate needs. Those are all really helpful values and practices.

I do think there are both positive and challenging aspects to what I call “actually existing anarchism” in North America. Some of the more difficult things that are commonplace right now are, one, a real reticence about strategy, about trying to develop plans to move us toward a longer term vision of what we want to achieve beyond our immediate activities. Second is a kind of subcultural stuckness, a sense of “Let’s create a radical activist identity with very specific kinds of fashions and vocabularies connected to it, and let’s be in fact skeptical of people who try to connect to us who don’t share our ways of dressing or our ways of talking.” I think that often leads to an insularity that gets in the way of us trying to organize with other people. And there’s also a lot of reticence towards building organizations and institutions that are going to help us keep struggling for the long haul. I understand where some of that skepticism comes from; people don’t want to build parties and I’m totally with that. But at the same time, I do think we need some resilient structures that can facilitate ongoing work and hold people as they age, move through their lives, and continue to stay involved in movements.

Part of the tension here is that within anarchist politics specifically I don’t think we have great ways of talking about reform fights. And talking about some of these campaigns, whether we’re talking about defending reproductive rights, or we’re talking about fights for a higher minimum wage, a so-called living wage, fights to defend particular kinds of long-time labor organizing rights, and so on. Within anarchist politics, we often focus either on the immediate confrontational actions we’re involved in or we talk about our “liberatory” visions for the future, but we do have a very difficult time getting into some of the details of what we’re going to do to actually get ourselves to our “liberatory” visions. And here I think we do need to talk critically about reforms without being dismissive of all reform fights. Because I do think there are ways to evaluate these campaigns and to think critically and constructively about how to engage them.

But it is a messy, difficult process, and that is something that came up again and again as I went around and interviewed people. Because most of the people I interviewed are engaged in precisely these kinds of campaigns. Whether they’re involved in defense campaigns for people facing deportations, whether they’re trying to build labor organizations or feminist institutions and so on, they’re stepping into this messiness, where there are never clear-cut answers about how to navigate all of this, about how to carry our critical commitments while engaging with these real world kinds of campaigns. And the best I can say is that we’ve just got to step in and try and do it and not get too caught up in absolutism or perfectionism.

Given your background and political perspective, why was the book about “anti-authoritarian” rather than “anarchist” politics? Asked differently, or perhaps a separate question: Does the term anti-authoritarian reflect an unwillingness (yours or theirs) to use the word “anarchist”? What motivates that?

I made that decision early on as I was contacting activists and organizers to interview. Keep in mind that I was especially focusing on talking to people of color, queer people, working-class people, and women and gender non-conforming people. What I had been experiencing – and what become very clear as I began conducting interviews – is that there are lots of people in struggle who share broadly similar values, practices, and visions. But only some – a minority, really – of these people call themselves anarchists. And I do think this is connected to some of what I was saying earlier about the challenges of “actually existing anarchism,” which in North America has been too often rooted in predominately white middle-class subcultural scenes and frequently allergic to strategy and organizing.

As I interviewed people, I asked explicitly how they got politicized. These were always incredible conversations. And what I discovered is that there are many trajectories – many ways – into politics that we might call anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppression. People come through radical women of color feminism, prison industrial complex abolitionism, Indigenous sovereignty struggles, radical queer activism, Latin American autonomous movements, and other crucial routes. Often they come through more than one of these. And for some people, anarchism has been a big influence, and for others it has been irrelevant – or worse.

It’s possible that this might be changing. As I’ve been touring, I’ve seen some indications of this. Also, I know there are regional specificities to what anarchism looks like and is associated with across this continent.

In any case, as I was interviewing people, I started using the intentionally broader term “anti-authoritarian” to describe the political current I was encountering and participating in. Of course, this also isn’t a term that everyone uses, and I try to be up front about that in the book. But more people were comfortable with this term. And in trying to make sense of this, I was influenced by Maia Ramnath’s argument in her book Decolonizing Anarchism that perhaps we should see anarchist politics as one manifestation of a much bigger tree or family of anti-authoritarianism.

So, I’m an anarchist, for sure. But I think it’s essential to be critical about anarchism – to recognize that it doesn’t give us all the answers for making revolution in the 21st century and that, in its current form, it has some significant limitations. And in working with other people to build movements, I’ve actually come to be much more concerned with what I think of as the “three P’s”: principles, processes, and practices. I’m more interested in how, why, and toward what end people do things than I am with the specific political labels they use. What I’ve found is that people who call themselves abolitionists, women of color feminists, Indigenous, and/or anti-authoritarian are propelling many of the most dynamic struggles and movements right now. This is the perspective I tried to bring into the book.

What do you think has been the most exciting lesson of the faster moving, broadly expanding movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter?

Well, there are actually many great lessons there, but I think one of the biggest and most exciting and important lessons is that each of these mobilizations reveals new layers of people who have become completely fed up with aspects of this system and maybe haven’t been involved in explicit movement work but are suddenly moving into action.

There’s this kind of weird double way of thinking that sometimes happens on the radical left, when we talk about the masses. The one idea is that the vast majority of people in our society are just brainwashed and dupes and there’s no hope in them. They’re not going to move and so therefore we, as a kind of radical minority, should just try and push as much as we can. And the other view that we sometimes flip into is really romanticizing ordinary people and saying, actually, people are just being held back but they’re ready for insurrection right around the corner.

I think what these mass mobilizations suggest is that neither of those perspectives are quite right, but there are a lot of people who, in various ways, understand that we are living the midst of an interconnected social, ecological, political, and economic crisis. They’re fed up with these circumstances and are hungry for other ways of understanding what’s going on and are ready to move into trying to change things. I think these mobilizations have revealed a wonderful kind of possibility for action that’s far beyond what we often limit ourselves to within activist circles.

Something that I wondered about your intervention in writing this book was how much it was intended as a way for people in what sounds like a very multi-segmented current—encouraging those people to maybe see one another across some differences within the movement or different origins in terms of which activist tradition they’re a part of, to see more commonality. Was that one of your goals? And do you see that as something that’s in process, and something that you’re furthering with the book?

Absolutely. A lot of times, people within social justice activism more generally in the US in particular talk about a kind of silo effect, of many kinds of activist and organizing work happening but in many different silos. And there’s a way that the non-profit structure in organizing contributes to a silo effect, where people are pursuing grants in competition from one another and trying to distinguish themselves as doing important, leading, cutting-edge kinds of work. And that can have all kinds of negative effects.

More generally, broad social and ecological justice activism in North America is very segmented, and that’s not just within the non-profit sector. This happens even among people who are very critical of the non-profit sector, who are involved in radical activism that in some way rejects the non-profit approach. There’s a lot of this kind of competition and dismissal of one another. And often just not really paying attention to what’s happening in other movements or other contexts. This is certainly true in terms of race, in the kind of racial segregation of activism and organizing. It’s certainly true in terms of class, intersecting with race. And it’s certainly true in relation to gender. All of these things play out. Now it’s also true in terms of geography; a lot of people are very much focused on where they are in a particular city or a particular region.

So with this book, I was hoping to at least lift up some common themes, questions, and experiences, that I was hoping could create a situation where people might have some mutual recognition. And so far my experience while going on tour with this book—which is what I’ve been doing over the last several months, I’ve been in more than thirty cities—my experience is that people are very hungry for ways to think about the connections between what they’re doing in their particular locale, and what people are doing in another place. Maybe it’s people who are involved in fighting a pipeline construction project where they live, and in another place, maybe it’s people who are involved in gender-based violence. There are some common questions and values at play, and there are lessons that people can often learn across these pretty intense segments. This is what I was hoping to do and to whatever extent it’s helping to bridge those barriers I’m really happy.

Revised Book Touring Tips

I’m delighted to make available a new version of my “Tips for Going on Book Tour” with more details and recommendations.

I wrote the original version of these tips after the 2011 West Coast tour for Andy Cornell’s book Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from Movement for a New Society, collaboratively published by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies. Harjit Singh Gill and I, both board members of the IAS, went along with Andy to help out with book-selling, driving, and introducing events. The tour, which included seven events between Santa Cruz and Seattle, was a wonderful experience, full of new comrades and great, organizing-oriented discussions.

Besides being excited about Andy’s book, part of what motivated me to co-organize and go on the Oppose and Propose! tour was to develop my book tour organizing skills more generally. I initially wrote the tip sheet as a way to consolidate and share what I’d learned. I’m grateful to Aid and Abet for hosting it alongside other very useful resources on their website.

While touring with Another Politics in 2014-2015, I consistently returned to these tips and used them to build timelines and checklists. Altogether, I organized three tour legs – on the West Coast, across Canada, and along the U.S. East Coast – involving more than 60 events in 35 cities. Throughout this experience, I learned new things about tour organizing and reconsidered some of what I thought I knew. I’ve tried to distill these lessons into the revised and expanded tip sheet.

Most of the available models for book touring are based on entrepreneurship, self-promotion, and money-making. And sadly, these tend to be the default models even within left academic and activist circles. However, there are radical authors – individuals and groups – creating and practicing alternative touring approaches primarily aimed at fostering collective reflection and movement-building. I offer this tip sheet in the hopes of encouraging and supporting these kinds of approaches.