In the United States, November’s presidential election is slowly approaching, and I have been asking myself whether I am going to vote in it or not. For the most part I have been approaching this question from a personal angle: Would my vote be likely to swing my district or my state? If being a participatory citizen, politically active and vocally engaged, is something I believe in, am I setting a bad example by not voting? If the candidate I like the least is elected, will I feel guilty for not voting for the incrementally better option? Is participating in an election in which I am not represented, the results of which can only further my frustrations as an oppressed person, worth it?
The more I ask these questions, and the more I pose them to other members of my community, the more I am reminded that there are far deeper quandaries that a presidential election raises, especially in a political moment like the current one. As all mainstream media and election coverage beat around the realities of national debt, worsening economic emergency, military conflicts and the global shifting of industrial and material power, one must ask what it is that we are expected to vote for. Our choices, as per usual, are not between different representatives, but between different models for our economic appropriation, different ways in which we might make ourselves useful to the ultra-wealthy, and keep a state which thrives on our disenfranchisement competitive in the global market. For those of us who have the option (and a sizable number of us do not), what is our participation in this election, or lack thereof, going to accomplish? In the face of the issues which truly affect, divide and pose threat to our collectives, how does voting for the president factor into addressing them?
If there is one thing I hope we all learned from the election of Barack Obama, it is that the state apparatus does not become a fundamentally different kind of machine when it is headed by an oppressed person. (And that if we are electing candidates based on their likability, we should not be so quick to judge those who made similar miscalculations in previous elections.) Campaigns which garner their clout from corporate funding and wealthy foundations, and whose platforms are based on celebrity rather than consciousness, cannot be expected to represent our communities, nor to encompass their many voices. The government to which their candidates are elected, one which is in place to assure the economic dominance and military force on a global scale of the U.S. nation-state, should not be trusted to care for the descendants of slaves, or homeless folks, to acknowledge the incarcerated and respect the rights of the undocumented. Our marginalization is the design of the state, not its unfortunate byproduct, and while voting may at times help us pass certain laws and bills–ones which represent arguable victories for our people–I cannot help but see voting as more ritual than practice, one which galvanizes our communities around the benign maintenance of the state, not its transformation.
One of the reasons why raising this kind of a discourse around U.S. elections is so complicated are the long legacies of struggle in so many of our oppressed communities for the right to vote. To suggest that voting is not worth the trouble often seems apathetic or even disrespectful to previous generations and their hard-fought battles. I know there are members of my own community who would remind me that the privilege of having the choice to not vote is one which many fought to grant me. Yet the point I hope to make is that voting does not grant us any real choice–it merely gives us the opportunity of tallying our consent for the continuation of a system of global domination, one which represents our demise along with that of countless communities across the planet. What I hope to call for is not political disengagement, but a radical re-engaging of our communities, centered around our advocating for ourselves, raising our voices outside of predetermined systems, demanding the basic resources we require, and organizing to actively dismantle the state, not to make limited choices about which powerful figures should temporarily occupy it. This kind of action is taken with the deepest intentions to honor, protect and fight for all generations of our communities, not to offend or alienate them.
A professor of Ethnic Studies and Native Sovereignty Politics at my college for whom I had much respect, stated often that once Indigenous and colonized subjects have looked critically at their relationship to the nation-state, the only logical thing they can do is call for its dismantling. Once it is understood that political borders and the resources they delineate, the occupation and desecration of ancestral lands, and the calculated disenfranchising of specific populations are the problems, voting on whose job it will be to oversee them becomes a ludicrous solution. We may or may not be able to vote in the upcoming election, but whether we should, I have begun to think, is a question which is irrelevant to the liberation of our people and of ourselves. If we want to know how our own struggles are coming along, we should ask ourselves what it is we are doing actively and on a daily basis to undermine the state, rather than imploring its representation. Exercising our political voices, and engaging next generations in using theirs, is critical. Yet acting out false democracy in the form of a presidential election may be the least significant way of doing so.
Lois Wiener, among many other progressive educators and scholars, has written extensively about the neoliberal reforms which are overwhelming current models for education in the US–particularly in oppressed communities. The charter school movement, the de-unionizing of school staff and the vast privatization of public institutions are the most visible examples of these reforms in the United States, but what Wiener notes is that these conservative shifts are not occurring in the US alone. The neoliberal revising of education is a global project, one led by corporate power, hedge fund managers and other ultra-wealthy benefactors. It can be characterized as a charitable missionary campaign, which touts a rhetoric of “college readiness” and “the ending of poverty,” but which is at its foundation about creating a transnational core of workers prepared to generate wealth for a new generation of global elite in an age of information. The most necessary prerequisite for creating such a global form of vocational training is the systematic standardizing of all learning communities into a model which supports labor in the fields of technology and information.
Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden, a 2010 documentary which examines the modern push for western schooling models in Central and South Asia from the radical perspectives of the communities which are being subjected to these reforms, helps to illustrate all of these global shifts concretely. Through a lens of Native People power, class consciousness and holistic learning, the film explores not only the cultural erasure initiated by western educational and economic institutions, but the methods through which poor and brown people around the planet structure and educate their own communities–methods which are universally discredited and consciously destroyed through traditional models of Eurocentric learning. Whether you are a member of traditional institution of learning or not, this documentary is a must-see for anyone who wants to better understand not only how to challenge the cultural and economic hegemony inherent in western education, but what alternative models for radical learning already exist in the global community, and in our own traditions as oppressed people. Check out the amazing videos, resources, topics of discussion and thoughtful responses at the Schooling the World homepage.
The African American Studies program in which I majored at my university was founded–like countless other Black, Brown and Ethnic Studies Departments–as the result of student, staff and faculty organizing. In 1969, after four years of alienation, tokenizing, failed communication and outright racism, the first admitted class of Black students lead a serious campaign for the prioritizing and enfranchising of Black bodies and histories on the all-white campus. Aided by the guidance and direct support of specific staff and faculty, a core of Black students took over a main hall on the center of the campus, and refused to leave until a set of their agreed upon demands had been met by the university, including the founding of a Black Studies department. Though, naturally, there were a myriad of factors and forces which ultimately led to the program’s establishment, it would never have been possible without the militant efforts of alined bodies of oppressed students and faculty.
Last year, after a conservative student group on my college’s campus staged a racist and misinformed “anti-affirmative action bake sale” in the student center, multiple oppressed student groups organized a demonstration in response to the event. Hundreds of students gathered midday in the same space where the bake sale had taken place to pass out pamphlets correcting the false information given during the sale, to galvanize support for the student populations who had been attacked by the event, and to vocalize their reactions. Students took turns standing on tables to speak, making countless eloquent and empowering statements. In the midst of these speeches, a professor of American Studies and Native Sovereignty Politics joined in the fray, shouting to the crowd, “Queers bash back! Students of color bash back!” until the entire student center was chanting with her. She next stated that in citing the motto of the radical queer group Bash Back, in no way was she advocating physical or emotional violence against any individuals or organizations, but that she was advocating violence. She was, she explained, advocating retaliation against the systems which establish oppressed people as abject, which denounce our histories, silence our voices, and expect us to make peace with disenfranchisement. Violence, she stated, creatively and productively administered, is an appropriate response to the systems and bodies which do violence to us on a daily basis. As students and as oppressed people, she informed us, bashing back was a duty which we owed to the safe survival of our communities, one which we should direct on the university frequently, not just in particular moments of crisis. Her words remained with me long after the rally was over.
In our modern educational discourse of acceptance and diversity, oppressed populations often seek institutionalized and diplomatic means of addressing their grievances. I have on many occasions heard oppressed groups of multiple backgrounds express the fear that, given their community’s history of activism, any other type of retaliation might be read as militant. My sincere response to this worry is: What’s wrong with being militant? Where did we learn this fear of militant organizing, and a shame in the radical histories of our communities and the incredible victories won through their militant efforts? Militancy is not an archaic feature of past activism, relevant only to a time when “real political issues” existed. The myth that militancy is a thing of the past is part of what continues the silencing of our voices and the devaluing of our communities, and halts our potential to advocate for ourselves and each other in radically new and effective ways. We need to take pride in our militant legacies (for queer, brown, working, immigrant, women, poor, and disabled communities all have militancy in our recent and immediate histories) and see those legacies not as distant histories which inevitably opened the door for our current moment, but as the efforts of our ancestors which we must actively keep alive and pass on if we want to arrive in a truly just world.
Militancy does not signify hatred or malice. It does not mean modeling our movements with uniformity or standardization, nor should it be associated with totalitarian or undemocratic military regimes. Being militant means actively opposing systems of normativity and oppression where they exist, and working to hold them accountable at every turn. It is a willingness to threaten the status quo, to be confrontational, to undermine business-as-usual through organizing and action. It is a commitment to radical politics which extends beyond talking and writing about them to initiating them in the real world, before real opposition. It exists in a bond with respect and compassion, and finds enemies only in the institutions which dismantle the health and well-being of our communities. But it is necessary for radical change, it is a part of our history, and we as oppressed people should work to invest ourselves in it as a political tactic instead of distancing ourselves from it.