Monday, December 19, 2011

We're Just Here to Watch the Game, Officer

Riding the high of our freezing, raining, slightly disorganized and overwhelmingly policed action at the Port of Long Beach on Dec 12th, a table full of soaking wet comrades came up with an idea for a brilliant autonomous action. 

Ruth Fowler, who wrote a great piece on what we did, was the origin: she signed up to receive LAPD chief Charlie Beck’s tweets some time ago, to keep tabs. She got an announcement for what appeared to be a public relations event: the LAPD basketball team going to the Midnight Mission on Skid Row to play a team comprised of people who work at the various missions/outreach centers there. I kid you not: The LAPD “Young Gunz” vs the “Skid Row All-Stars.” The press release itself is a work of manic rhetorical genius: the LAPD are "just men doing what they love" on the court. Competition between the teams "shows the level of mutual respect." And other bizarre obfuscating tripe.
Our instant suspicion of the event was not paranoid: the LAPD is notorious for its harassment of the residents of Skid Row, even more notably since the Safer Cities Initiative was passed. This initiative has resulted in the area of Skid Row, which has low incidence of violent crime, hosting the highest concentration of law enforcement anywhere in the country. The money for services never materialized from the Initiative, and the cycle of homelessness and incarceration has not been broken, it has been reinforced. The missions in the area, while providing much-needed shelter, food, and care, especially to people attempting to get sober, support the Safer Cities Initiative and thus still contribute to the criminalization of homelessness. Please read more about the issues- this is a political quagmire, safely hidden from view as the gentrification of downtown Los Angeles rolls along per Mayor Villaraigosa's plans. 
Like I said, we were still high on adrenaline from the port action, and trying to ignore our freezing wet clothes while we occupied a breakfast spot in Long Beach, and it was decided: Sometimes you just have to mic-check the police chief in his basketball shorts. 
The following day, we descended on the offices of LA-CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network), also located in Skid Row, and talked with organizers there about our plan to crash the LAPD’s little PR stunt. We wanted to make sure we weren’t jeopardizing any important relationships with the Midnight Mission, that there would not be repercussions on Skid Row residents, and that we were covering the right issues in our planned statement. We got some great advice on the statement and a smirking green light on the action from long-time activists we trust. 
Nine of us walked into the Mission that afternoon with a script, a video camera, and hopes to show a few people that OccupyLA has the brains and the balls to disrupt self-congratulatory band-aid media stunts from law enforcement. We watched the cops serve meals, with sidearms visible under their plastic aprons. (Very friendly.) We sat in the stands, we stood for the anthem, and then when the players were getting introduced, I pulled the script from my pocket and screamed “MIC CHECK!” 
This is what we said: 
"We, the 99%, do not accept the criminalization of the 15,000 homeless people on Skid Row. Shelter is a human right, and by shelter we do NOT mean jail cells under the so-called Safer Cities Initiative. The police presence on Skid Row is highest in the world, with a greater deployment of law enforcement than anywhere but Iraq. We want real community change, not empty public relations efforts. We are here in support of the RESIDENTS of Skid Row, and all those who are doing what they can despite the violent selective targeting of City Council and the LAPD. "
The LAPD scrambled to figure out how to kick us out without arresting us in the middle of a nice little time. They yanked on Ruth a bit, but we were escorted out of the building with no further incident. 
During the mic check, one of the officers kept saying, “This is private property, you can’t do that here.” It was hilarious logic: everyone in the stands responded to us, mostly with favorable cheers and “Skid Row! Skid Row!” as we left. If we’d been chanting something short and supportive, like “Go Allstars!” We would have had no problem. What we did was say a little too much, with a little too much conviction, and puncture the veil of Public Relations to remind everyone that the problems of our city are not only not being solved, they are being exacerbated by the LAPD. 
There’s really nothing finer on a rainy afternoon than some good ol’ disruption of business-as-usual. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

On White Privilege and Going to Jail Part II

I was arrested last Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning at the "peaceful" eviction of the OccupyLA encampment. I was released late Thursday night on my own recognizance, with a notice to appear in court on January 6th. I still have comrades in jail, some of whom were snatched just two days ago during a march. 

One conversation that has emerged from this experience was sparked by the impatience many long-time activists feel in the face of the arrestee's complaints about tight cuffs, bad food, rough treatment, no showers, and so on. The conversation looks something like this: 
Occupy Arrestee: They treated us so badly in jail! This is an outrage!
Seasoned Activist: What did you expect? They've been doing this to people for fifty years. 
OA: But this time they did it to ME!
SA: And so now you care? What about when they were doing it to the Black Panthers in the 1960s? What about when they do it to people in marginalized urban communities every DAY? What about when they do it to the house-less, or to prostitutes? It's so selfish to suddenly care about the treatment of incarcerated people now that you've had a taste of the system. 
OA: I know, I know. What can I do about my past? I didn't get it. I get it now. 

As frustrating as it is to know that many of the people who were radicalized by their experiences in jail could have potentially been radicalized by an education prior, I hope to help welcome my brothers and sisters into the radical fold, whatever their entry was. 

For me, the real moment of radicalization happened last year, in an Ethnic Studies course taught by Dylan Rodriguez at UC Riverside. When I read the book "Pacifism as Pathology," by Ward Churchill, and sat in a room of activist-scholars who had much clearer and more nuanced understanding of the way privilege functions in our country, I had the first in a series of "aha" moments that have changed me. 

Some statements of my privilege: I am a white woman from the middle class, who had not yet been targeted by law enforcement. I can see women who look like me on TV. I have never been told not to speak my native language. I have never been told that my clothes could be a reason for my imprisonment. I have access to birth control. I have an education. I can read very well. I have traveled to other countries. I have access to the internet. I know a lot about nutrition, and I can afford to eat healthfully. I do not support a large family. I have a supportive family. I have never lived with a substance addiction. I own a cell phone. And so on.

I am from Berkeley, and so my understanding of what it meant to be leftist was mostly pacifist, communicative, and passive towards state power. I had never questioned the efficacy or the inherent privilege of that position. I generally want to deescalate violence. I had never questioned the efficacy or the inherent privilege of that stance, either. Over the course of ten weeks in Dylan's class, scales fell from my eyes and I was in pain: the pain of realizing that for all my education and radical politics, I had actually been blind to the complex functioning of systems of repression and oppression. It wasn't my fault, but it was my fault. 

In the holding cell at Van Nuys Metro, I watched women get angry at the way incarcerated people are dehumanized, bullied, and subjected to torturous conditions as a matter of course. One activist said, "Stop complaining at every little thing, it makes us look stupid. This is what jail is like for everyone." I interjected, "No. I think every grievance should get voiced. Our job here is to remind the LAPD, and ourselves, that we don't have to accept the 'fact' of jail, that we can look at it with fresh anger, and that we are fighting systemic acceptance of wrong, immoral, inhumane conditions for everyone, not just for ourselves." In that situation, the naive response was the most radical! It involved women seeing something for the first time, and recognizing its disease because they had not already accepted that it was status quo. 

This is why longtime organizers always need to listen to new voices and young people. We sometimes settle into a sense of "one must pick one's battles." Do I think my friend should have screamed so loud about wanting a toothbrush that she got carted off to solitary? Yes. Because she started a conversation on the whole cell block about why the hell they wouldn't let us brush our teeth. She started a conversation about repressive tactics of psychological torture that many thought weren't used on American civilians. One officer, when we requested a newspaper, said, "You don't get to have one today. You need a lot of time to think."

So we took that time to think. And as far as I know, not a one of us felt repentant at the end of it. 

The move into more radical thought doesn't have to happen violently, but it feels violent, because it is the destabilization of all that one used to "know" about how the world works. It is an epistemological shift that hurts. But it is the best kind of pain. It is birth. And the more who go through it, whether in a classroom, in a jail cell, or from their childhood as it is necessary for survival, the more comrades we have in the fight.