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.