Monday, March 8, 2010

Race and Privilege on the 880

Since March 4, a series of criticisms of the highway action have appeared on blogs, facebook, and email lists that advance a set of very similar arguments. Primarily, they assert, the "leaders" of the action were "white anarchists" with little or no connection to Oakland, outside agitators who hijacked a peaceful rally and turned it "violent" by tricking people of color and youth into coming onto the highway with them -- and getting them arrested. These conversations are in line with earlier ones regarding race and privilege in the student movement in general, only this time they have become more focused. The first one to turn up was written by Nico Dacumos, and posted on his facebook page (link below); it reads as follows:
Why Did the March onto the 980 Freeway Happen?

I have heard and saw with my own eyes that the march to the freeway was led by a group of mostly white anarchists (black bloc). Why are people that don't have any link to Oakland communities leading people in actions, the consequences of which many, especially young students of color, were not made aware? I saw at least 20 of these white folks in black fleeing the scene, stuffing their black clothes into bags, hiking up their skinny jeans, and jumping on their bikes. Meanwhile, I am on the phone with Irina and she is telling me she is watching students of color getting loaded onto a paddy wagon. Who is really paying the price here? As a public school teacher, I am actually shocked and honored or something that kids feel like they care enough to come out to support education. I am angry and saddened that this event turned into yet another reason for the Oakland police to lock up more young students and people of color.

An article published by Lillian R. Mongeau on highlights exactly why parents, teachers, neighbors, and anybody else who has a part in the daily lives of students should be pissed off by the people who incited the march into the freeway:

"Sebastian Beretvas, a 12-year-old Oakland School of the Arts student who was arrested and then released, said he had been attending the rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza with the permission of his parents. “We were going to take the bus home and we saw some protesters so we joined the group,” he said. “Then we were led on the freeway and I thought with one side of my brain that this is fun. I thought with the other side of my brain, ‘This is a bad idea.’”"

A few hours later I ran into a teacher friend at the grocery store and she had a similarly pissed off reaction to hearing that groups of mostly white anarchists spent the morning and afternoon trying to get people hyped up to run onto the freeway and then led the way once the march got to Frank Ogawa Plaza. She immediately connected this incident to the Oscar Grant protests and the role that anarchists played in how things went down on January 8, 2009 in Downtown Oakland.

One of my friends and mentors, an older Latina dyke with years of activism and shit-starting under her belt, is convinced that most black bloc-ers are hired narcs for the likes of the FBI, starting shit up, letting people who really don't need any more exposure to the American justice system deal with the legal consequences, and then walking away unscathed. I don't know about that, but I certainly know that people at the protests didn't recognize many of these white folks from any of the activist circles they frequent in the Bay Area. Additionally, one of the people acting as a legal observer who was arrested tonight specifically did recognize some of the anarchist ring leaders and wanted nothing to do with them or their proposed stroll across 980.

At issue here is not so much the political ideology of mostly white black bloc anarchists, but the ways that their incitement of actions here in Oakland speaks to an entitlement and privilege that makes them think it is okay to encourage people of color, mostly African American and Latino males, to engage in "violent" forms of protest when they are already groups targeted and abused by the police. Do they care that getting arrested will have messed up consequences for these kids? Did anyone take a minute to explain the possible consequences of their actions so that people could make an informed choice? I have no way of knowing what was going through the minds of the reportedly 150+ people who were arrested today, so I won't pretend to know if people knew what might happen or not. It just frustrates me to see people get locked up for ends I'm not sure
are clear to anyone involved.

People gathered today to protest the ways that the state continues to exact structural violence on low-income and people of color, who rely on public education as an avenue to access even the most basic of needs, nevermind that we must do so while trying to navigate and side step the ways that public education is used as a tool to indoctrinate us into American cultural norms that tell us we we're not worth anything anyway.

In the end, I'm thinking about all the white kids in black I saw laughing and running down 8th Street free as shit while my friends Cooper and Puck, who went into today acting as documentation and legal observer, are sitting in jail because they wanted to support and protect the young people and people of color who were headed to the freeway behind back
bloc-ers waving Syndicalist flags.

If you can, come out and support those who were arrested tomorrow morning at the North County Jail on 7th Street in Oakland. Demand that they be released immediately so that no one has to spend the weekend in jail. Call 510. 777.3333 and make those same demands.
This same critique has come from UC Berkeley faculty as well. Nelson Maldonado Torres wrote this response, forwarding it along with the text of Dacumos's post to a faculty listserv:
Dear colleagues,

A number of us who went to Sacramento made it later to Oakland in time to be at the rally there. I heard from students and faculty about how powerful and peaceful the march down Telegraph Ave. had been. The rally itself was also a powerful and peaceful event. It had a large contingent from UC Berkeley, mixed with high school, community college students, and others. It was an important statement, I think, that complemented in important and necessary ways the rally in Sacramento.

Unlike Sacramento, Oakland is not the seat of power, but is widely known for its activism, particularly by communities of color, many of whom are working class people who sometime live in precarious conditions where they face poverty, environmental racism, and different forms of violence. Unlike Sacramento also, it is not necessary to drive far away from campus in order to actually join a peaceful demonstration calling attention to the poor conditions of public education. And many of those who live in the Bay Area and are interested in establishing more long lasting forms of organizing were in the Oakland rally, not in Sacramento.

Like SAVE CC, a number of faculty supported a multi-action and multi-site day of demonstrations, and in that light everything so far indicates that we should be proud of both the march and rally in Oakland, and the trip and demonstration in Sacramento. Now, it would be interesting to see faculty who went to Sacramento taking a day to know more about the situation in Oakland and consider linking UC Berkeley with organizing in CSUs and Community Colleges in the area, and folks who went to Oakland and who have been more apathetic to "educating the state" seat with those who went to Sacramento to hear about their experience leading up to the Sacramento rally, the rally itself, and the plans for the future.

By now we have all surely heard of the "freeway occupations", which seemed to begin in Oakland. I include one description and reflection of the event below. I happened to be in the area and documented some of what was going on, but I only arrived when the freeway was paralyzed and when police were beginning to arrest the people seating in the highway.

I immediately thought of a group of folks that I had seen in the rally with a sign that read: "Occupy everything." I include a picture attached. I do not know if they were the ones leading folks to the highway, but the an account that I include below indicates that presumably white anarchists took a major role in it, just like some presumably did in a number of the demonstrations after Oscar Grant murder in Oakland.

Again, I cannot verify this. I include the picture so that you can have a sense of one group calling for occupations publicly. This group was by no means at the center of the rally, which is the place from where our campus organizers were congregating and speaking. What I saw at the rally in Oakland was a beautiful and powerful peaceful demonstration in defense of public education, and I congratulate our campus organizers for making that happened.

The "freeway occupation" was not a violent action per se, but it created, of course, a by far too dangerous situation to many drivers. Lives could have been lost yesterday, and that would have been tragic. This is clearly not the dominant strategy that community organizers who are giving countless hours in a sustained manner to improve the lives of their communities in Oakland take to address the issues that their communities face. It does not go in line with the principal forms of organizing among people there, and it did not go in line with the speeches that I heard or the spirit of the rally in Oakland.

The highway occupation took place after the Oakland rally was officially over. And even if there were UCB participants involved, that should not be in the way of recognizing the importance of the march to and rally in Oakland. The same would have been true if something similar had taken place after the rally in Sacramento.

We should be thinking about how to make productive this multi-site, multi-action day, and resist the temptation to think that we can seriously defend public education (from K-12, CC, and CSU) without having to face, communicate, and demonstrate with people in our neighboring communities who work or study in those spaces. In that sense, the rally in Sacramento should be likely taken as a triumph in itself, but also as a challenge. Oakland is waiting for us after Sacramento. Those faculty members who are already working on constructive relations with other circles of public education in the Bay Area, because they have children in public schools, because they live in working class communities in struggle, or because they do activism in the area, can lead the way or contribute to make that happen, but our students may have something to teach us here as well.


In the last few days, some sharp responses are beginning to surface. I imagine these discussions will get increasingly intense as actions escalate, but in the meantime Melissa Merin has written an excellent response to Dacumos and, indirectly, Maldonado as well:
Rebuttal to “Why Did the March onto the 980 Freeway Happen” by Melissa Merin

This is a response to this note, which I stumbled upon while not minding my own damn business.

I'd like to first acknowledge the 2 line sentence at the end of this short essay encouraging folks to go out and support people who were arrested following the 980/880 action in solidarity with student/teacher/family actions across the country on Thursday, March FORTH. Unfortunately, even this small call to support had errors of fact; the protesters weren't taken to North County jail in Oakland, the majority of those arrested were taken to and processed at Santa Rita jail in Dublin. I point this out, because, for the rest of my rebuttal, I will be focusing on what I consider to be errors of fact in your essay.

In your first paragraph, you write that the march to the freeway was led by a group of “mostly white anarchists”, and in parenthesis you added (black bloc). First of all, a black bloc is a strategy, it is not a group of people. Secondly, unless they were all, every last one of them white, then I see absolutely no point in mentioning such information. By calling a group “mostly white” you are automatically making invisible the people of color on whose behalf you are supposedly writing from. More on that later. You then make the automatic leap that these people (who are leading a march onto the freeway) “don't have any link to Oakland communities”. This is problematic for two main reasons, 1) there is absolutely no way on earth that you could honestly conclude that the people involved with the 880/980 action have no community ties in Oakland. You have no real proof of this outside of mere speculation which would ultimately be proven false – a conclusion you would reach had you done the proper research (beginning with talking to people who were on the ground that day to find out who they were and what they're all about); 2) An action which aims to stop traffic on a freeway doesn't always need to be rooted in the community. The purpose of stopping traffic on this day of action was to call attention to a viral, systematic issue in public education. To this end, everyone who is able and/or willing should join in whatever actions they see fit to join in order to call attention, raise awareness, and disrupt business as usual, regardless of their speculated status in a presumed community.

You go on to say (still in the first paragraph) that the consequences of marching onto the freeway were not explained (“made aware”) to “especially young students of color”. This I find to be horrendously offensive. With one line, you assume that “young students of color” a) need to be told by white people where there's danger and that b) these very students aren't capable of making their own decisions. Really, who needs to be told that marching onto the freeway has the potential to be dangerous? Answer: babies. Do you see us, especially young people of color as babies that need to be cared after by the obviously much wiser white anarchists?

You then set up this interesting scenario whereby the nefarious and mysterious white anarchists, after leading the poor gullible people of color into danger, run away laughing, as though their laughter indicates a well hatched plan to trap Oakland's lost youth, rather than relief at getting away. Then your friend is on the phone talking about students of color getting arrested – well yes! They marched onto a freeway to defend public education! They didn't get away! Also important to add is that cops do not have any love for the supposed “white anarchists”, whom they deem to be a sufficient enough menace to follow, harass and infiltrate on a regular level. I would bet my meager paycheck that had the cops been able to catch, beat and arrest those you saw “hiking up their skinny jeans”, they would have. Oh wait...I think they did.

At this point, I have to ask what your opinion of this action would have been had everyone arrested been white, or had everyone been black (to simplify things a bit)? Would you have written a hasty argument against the action less than 24 hours after it occurred?

By your second paragraph, you mis-quote 12 year old Sebatian Beretvas (who has been quoted all over the place by now) as having said [about marching onto the freeway] “This is a bad idea...” His entire quote was conveniently omitted by you. Here it is, “Me and my friend were going to take the bus home and we saw some protesters so we decided to just follow the protester,” he said. “Then we were led onto the freeway, and I was like, ‘Okay, this isn’t a good idea.’ That was one side of my brain. And then the other side was like, ‘I want to keep going.’” He later said, “I had fun before and the protest was fun, and then I was really scared when I was getting arrested and I had handcuffs on.” His mother said that she supported the cause, recognized that there was a “herd mentality”. Neither he nor his mother ever blame these elusive “mostly white anarchists”.

After you misquote the 12 year old who got arrested, you mention a teacher friend of yours -why you omit her race & other identities is a mystery- who equates these “mostly white anarchists” hyping people up about the 880/980 freeway action to the “mostly white anarchists” who, in her very ill-informed opinion incited an entire army of youth of color to smash shit in the wake of the execution of Oscar Grant III on New Year's day, 2009. Again I point out that you, and your teacher friend inadvertently take agency away from all those who empowered themselves to take to the streets (or freeways) in order to make their voices heard, by making the assertion that youth of color, people of color, women, kids, feminists, etc wouldn't have done it if the white people hadn't done it first. Talk about a neo-colonial, white supremacist attitude! *Incidently I strongly caution against the erroneous claim that “mostly white anarchists” started or finished the rebellions of January 7th, 14th and 30th of 2009 (the results of which ended up having long lasting effects on the way that BART, the OPD, the DA, the FBI and Mayor Dellums reacted to the execution of Oscar Grant). But I digress.

For what ever reason, by paragraph 4, you mention another friend of yours, this time with all the bells and whistles “an OLDER LATINA DYKE with years of activism and shit-starting under her belt,”. I'll stop here for a second and ask again, why she gets all of the extra adjectives? Is it because you need her credibility to validate a faulty and hasty argument? Or is it to lend hot air to the next assertion; supposedly by her, that “most black bloc-ers are hired narcs for the likes of the FBI” in order to let underprivileged folks deal with the law or, in order to encourage people of color to engage in so-called violent forms of protest...Here I have to digress again to ask other rhetorical questions – Is taking over a freeway or smashing a bus shelter really violence? Are they the same as being beaten by a baton? Shot in the back at point blank range? What do you mean when you use the word violent?

Also you mention that one person acting as a legal observer recognized some of the folks you call “anarchist ring leaders”, and didn't want anything to do with them or the 880/980 action. Why did you not mention why? Why do you assume that because your legal observer friend knew one of the people (was that person an anarchist? What is the criteria we're using to define such a person?) that your friend would then know every other supposed anarchist on the freeway? And while I'm asking questions, are “ring leaders” defined as people who are yelling and exhorting the crowd, or as people who are taking definitive action? Either? Both? Can we get specific?

You ask a question in the next paragraph that I find reductive. You ask if these 150+ care about the repercussions of young folks of color getting arrested. I'd assume that the people I know who ended up at Santa Rita do care. Beyond that, I think that placing the onus on them to plan actions such as the takeover of the 880/980 with the absolute safety of all who will or may be involved is a strategic impossibility. I think that yes, folks can yell out “Hey y'all, we're gonna get arrested here on the freeway,” or something to that degree, but you can not stop a 12 year old or a 21 year old or 91 year old from taking that action. And you can't stop the fact that some people might get swept up who didn't want to be. How many times have I myself been that person? Exactly 6 times. Also, you can not reasonably expect that anything in this whole entire mired country will change with out people taking risks. A calculated risk is still a risk. Everyone who approached that freeway knew it was a risk, and some people unwilling to risk arrest got away, while others didn't.

There's also the question of the ends of actions being clear. Sometimes they're not. And sometimes they are, and you still won't agree with 'em. There has to be a way to acknowledge these things without attacking large groups of people.

Of course you wait until almost the end of your rant to admit that you don't know what was happening for the over 150 people arrested on Thursday. Which indicates that you don't know who they were, what they were doing, what they were fighting for...You saw some people running away, read an article or two, heard from a friend and jumped to some astounding and troubling conclusions.

I'm writing this rebuttal because each time I read something like your “Why Did the March Onto the 980 Happen”, I'm immediately reminded that when it comes to people of color, particularly those we assume to be young and/or poor, the left, the commies, the anarchos all still view us in a missionary light (how can we help these poor wretches?)

I see words like “mostly white anarchists”, and as someone who identifies as an anarchist, as a black woman, as a queer, as a Jew, I recognize that in your attempt to demonize a group of people you neither know nor understand, you immediately erase me and the identities of people like me in the process (anarchists, anti-authoritarians, people of color, queers, feminists, etc.). I also find egregious the oft repeated notion that every time there is an action where something breaks, anarchists, white ones, are always behind it, luring poor unsuspecting folks of color to certain danger. I find it patronizing, if not “mostly racist” to assume that we people of color can not think for ourselves without some white person's hand up our asses, posing us for this or that danger.

On closer reading, I found much of your reactive paper to be faulty, and my hope is that eventually, people will move away from the automatically reactionary critique of actions, and onto the next topic – how to make these actions mean something more? How to keep more of us safer? How to start winning?

I look forward to any and all comments and suggestions!

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